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Order banning homeless sweeps puts SF in ‘impossible situation,’ says city attorney

City Attorney David Chiu, wearing a suit and tie, looks on in front of the City Attorney's official seal and an American flag.
San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu stands behind a speaker at a press meeting held at City Hall. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

San Francisco’s city attorney filed a motion pushing back on a federal judge’s recent order prohibiting the city from destroying homeless encampments unless there are sufficient shelter options. 

In the filing, City Attorney David Chiu asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu to clarify what it means to be “involuntarily homeless” and questioned whether the city can clear encampments if inhabitants refuse shelter. Ryu issued a preliminary order on Dec. 23 that the city was violating its own policies, as well as federal precedent, by destroying homeless encampments without offering adequate access to shelter.

Chiu said in a statement that Ryu’s ruling potentially conflicts with a previous federal court settlement that requires San Francisco to take enforcement action against people who refuse shelter. 

“The Court’s order puts San Francisco in an impossible situation,” Chiu said in a press release. “It defies logic to require that San Francisco have shelter for all persons experiencing homelessness before San Francisco may enforce these laws against any one person, even after that individual has refused adequate shelter.”

Chiu cited a 2020 lawsuit by UC Hastings law school, which accused the city of ignoring the health and safety of housed Tenderloin residents by allowing encampments to proliferate in the area. That lawsuit ended in a settlement stipulating that the city remove tents from the area.

Ryu’s ruling was based on a federal precedent set in Martin v. Boise, a 2018 ruling that found that removing homeless encampments without providing shelter was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. 

“San Francisco must also be able to balance our legal obligations,” Chiu said.

Filed by the Coalition on Homelessness, the lawsuit alleged that the city doesn’t follow the precedent set in Martin v. Boise or its own policies for removing homeless encampments.  

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would incentivize the city to create more affordable housing, which advocates say is the solution to the crisis.

David Sjostedt can be reached at