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Advocates seek settlement with San Francisco in homeless encampments lawsuit

A man named Ryan, left, negotiates with city employees , right, over what items could be thrown away during an encampment clearing on April 25, 2023. | David Sjostedt/The Standard | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

Attorneys for the Coalition on Homelessness, which accused San Francisco officials of conducting illegal sweeps of homeless encampments, are seeking a settlement that includes filling vacant housing units and eliminating police from the enforcement of laws barring lodging in public.

"We all have a realistic sense of the potential risks and rewards of continued litigation," wrote attorneys for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

In a letter to City Attorney David Chiu, the attorneys laid out a proposed settlement framework with several provisions, including a requirement that the city fill an estimated 1,000 vacant supportive housing units and require that empty units be filled within 30 days.

The proposed settlement also includes a provision that the city spend unused funds from Proposition C and Proposition I, two ballot measures intended to boost funding for homelessness services and supportive housing, and funding for affordable housing, respectively.

Zal Shroff, lead attorney representing the Coalition on Homelessness, said at a Thursday press conference that they believe a settlement would lead to a more productive outcome than continuing with the litigation. Shroff said that there is “little sunlight” between the views of the coalition and the city on most issues, but that the city's enforcement of street encampments is counterproductive.

“There's been a sound gap between the city's good intentions on the response to homelessness, and then the actual outcomes,” Shroff said. “That's been really frustrating to taxpayers and to all residents of San Francisco who want to see an end to this crisis.”

The City Attorney's Office said it was surprised to learn about the press conference and called the move a "political stunt" in a statement Thursday afternoon. The parties had previously engaged in confidential settlement discussions under the supervision of a federal judge, the office said.

“Legal parties do not engage in settlement negotiations via the press, particularly when confidential settlement discussions are required," Chiu said. "Today, Plaintiffs disrespected the Court’s efforts and discouraged thoughtful settlement discussions."

The plaintiffs' letter also asks the city to send "trauma-informed social services personnel" instead of police to address violations of ordinances prohibiting sitting, lying, sleeping or lodging in public—unless there are "genuine sidewalk safety or health issues"—along with implementing a "better plan" to resolve encampments and improving street cleaning.

In September 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness and seven unhoused plaintiffs filed a lawsuit accusing the city of illegally destroying property during encampment sweeps and violating federal precedent by forcing occupants to move without sufficient shelter options.

In December 2022, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a court order that temporarily restricted city agencies from enforcing local laws barring sitting, lying or sleeping on public property. 

Chiu later asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to invalidate the injunction, arguing that the ban on the enforcement of sit/lie laws is overly broad and untenable.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Aug. 23.

Among other objections, Chiu argued that the court never clarified what it means to be "involuntarily" homeless and whether that applies to people who refuse offers of shelter.

In a subsequent filing, Chiu alleged that the accusations against the city were "riddled with falsehoods," writing that city outreach workers often encounter dangerous situations requiring a police presence and that people occupying encampments frequently refuse the city's offers of shelter.