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Homeless advocates sue the city for sweeping encampments and destroying property

Department of Public Works employees, who wished not to be identified, throw away items from the tent encampment outside the San Francisco Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, June 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A lawsuit filed by the Coalition on Homelessness and seven unhoused individuals is seeking to block the city’s encampment “sweeps,” citing a federal decision that banned the breakup of homeless encampments when there isn’t enough shelter for everyone. 

The lawsuit cites the testimonies of unhoused people who accuse the city of unlawfully destroying their property, thus decreasing the likelihood that they can recover from homelessness. A 2018 ruling in a case called Martin v. Boise prohibited cities from enforcing anti-camping laws if there isn’t enough shelter available.

“Our lawsuit is not saying that the city cannot enforce other laws,” said Zal Shroff, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “What’s not appropriate is punishing someone purely for the reason that they are unhoused.” 

The lawsuit names the San Francisco Police Department, Department of Public Works, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the Fire Department, the Department of Emergency Management, Mayor London Breed and Sam Dodge, director of the city’s Healthy Streets Operations Center. The plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the private firm Latham & Watkins. 

Along with ending the practice of encampment sweeps, the organizers of the lawsuit say they hope to incentivize the city to further boost its affordable housing stock. The lawsuit describes instances of city workers destroying personal property such as prosthetics and heart medication.  

The City Attorney’s Office said that it plans to respond to the lawsuit in court, and that the city is focused on expanding temporary and permanent housing options.

Public Works and the Healthy Streets Operations Center often clear encampments in response to resident complaints and prioritized based on size or other issues. The “encampment resolutions” lead many occupants to simply relocate to a nearby location

“We want the city to approach things in a way that leads people off the streets rather than playing this little game where they’re just moving people and then they come back or they’re across the street,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. 

The Coalition on Homelessness holds an action on the plaza at the Powell St. cable car turn-around on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca., to protest ongoing abuses of homeless people. | Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Michael Macor / SF Chronicle via Getty

It’s difficult to discern how much shelter is available on any given night. City officials terminated the shelter waitlist at the onset of the pandemic and have since removed a dashboard that tracked the shelter system’s capacity. In the meantime, however, the city has acquired a number of underused hotels and apartment buildings for use as homeless rehousing. 

A bill authored by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and passed through the Board of Supervisors in June requiring that the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing create a plan to provide shelter for all unhoused San Francisco residents by early next year. But those plans may meet resistance from homeless advocates who support building permanent housing as opposed to more temporary shelters. 

“It’s a theoretical possibility that this galvanizes a movement for temporary shelter…But because the city is thousands of shelter beds short, it would seem quite impossible for the city to build enough shelter beds,” Shroff said. “We want the city to focus on the long-term solutions to homelessness because only affordable housing can do that.” 

David Sjostedt can be reached at