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Politics & Policy

Decrying ban on homeless sweeps, San Francisco lawmakers to stage courthouse protest

Unhoused families and supporters of the Coalition on Homelessness march outside of San Francisco City Hall on Oct. 11, 2022. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

A group of San Francisco lawmakers, residents and merchants are heading up a rally outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals next week, just ahead of a key hearing on an injunction that temporarily bars the city from enforcing laws against sitting and lodging on the street. 

Supervisors Matt Dorsey, Rafael Mandelman and Joel Engardio are expected to attend the rally alongside San Francisco residents who are upset with street conditions that they say have grown increasingly untenable.

On Aug. 23, a Ninth Circuit panel will hear arguments in the city’s appeal of the controversial injunction, which was handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu in December 2022. The hearing will take place during a 9:30 a.m. session at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals at 95 Seventh St.

The injunction, requested by the Coalition on Homelessness as part of an ongoing lawsuit, temporarily restricts city workers from removing encampments, except in narrow circumstances such as for street cleaning. It has also inflamed frustrations among residents who feel they have little recourse in addressing troublesome encampments, even in situations that become dangerous. 

A man negotiates with city employees over what items could be thrown away during an encampment clearing on April 25, 2023 in the Mission District in San Francisco. | David Sjostedt/The Standard | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

“I can’t count on two hands the people who’ve told me, ‘There’s a tent encampment blocking customers from coming in, that started a fire I had to put out with an extinguisher, and the city said they can’t do anything about the encampment,’” said Ben Bleiman, a bar owner and president of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. “People are waking up and waking up fast.” 

The Coalition on Homelessness requested the injunction after accusing the city of illegally removing encampments and destroying property without maintaining sufficient shelter beds. Attorneys for the coalition argued that the city’s practice of breaking down encampments violates the U.S. Constitution and worsens the homelessness crisis. 

As a result of the injunction, city workers are walking a fine line in responding to encampments. The city may not enforce specific ordinances around sitting, lying or lodging on the street; however, workers can ask people occupying encampments to temporarily relocate for street cleaning and enforce health codes and other laws. 

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she hasn’t seen much of a change in the city’s enforcement of encampments and believes the rally’s organizers are missing the point of the injunction.

“There’s this huge disparity between how they’re talking publicly about their interpretation of the lawsuit and how the city attorney actually interpreted it,” Friedenbach said. “It’s delusional to think that the city is going to change what they’re doing without asserting pressure.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, speaks at a march outside of San Francisco City Hall on Oct. 11, 2022. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

At a press conference last week, the coalition’s attorneys proposed a settlement that included several specific provisions, such as a requirement that the city fill vacant supportive housing units within 30 days, spend unused funds from two housing-related ballot measures and exclude police from the enforcement of sit/lie laws. 

City Attorney David Chiu balked at the public offer, calling it a “political stunt” that discouraged thoughtful settlement discussions. The parties had previously engaged in confidential settlement negotiations under court supervision, Chiu’s office said. 

“I think Judge Ryu is acting as a politician; she’s making political judgments about policy and cloaking it in constitutional concerns,” Mandelman said. “She doesn’t have a deep history of engaging with these issues; she’s stepping into a political role, and that is a problem for the judiciary.”

The coalition’s legal case partly rests on Martin v. Boise, a 2018 Ninth Circuit decision, which held that cities cannot criminalize sleeping on public property if individuals cannot obtain shelter. But that ruling left open questions about the exact scope of that precedent and whether cities can place more targeted restrictions on public camping. 

Chiu has argued that the court failed to clarify what it means to be “involuntarily homeless” and whether that applies to people who refuse shelter. Attorneys for the Coalition on Homelessness have pointed out that individuals can’t easily access shelter of their own accord. 

As the court case plays out, some increasingly frustrated residents are demanding that the city do more to ameliorate conditions in the streets. 

Terry Asten Bennett, who co-owns Cliff’s Variety Store in the Castro neighborhood, said the city should act more quickly to convert unused office spaces into dwellings and to enforce laws that it has the ability to enforce. 

Bennett said that fights, drug use, screaming outbursts and other incidents have made her concerned for the safety of her employees and customers, and have discouraged visitors from coming to the world-famous Castro district. 

“It’s really important that the residents of the city are aware of the position this judge has put us in … but we also have to hold the city accountable. There are so many things that could be enforced that just aren’t,” Bennett said. “The response from the judge and from the city is not good enough. It’s not OK, it’s not humane for anybody and it’s putting all of us in a bad position.”

David Sjostedt contributed to this report.