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Politics & Policy

What to know about San Francisco’s messy legal battle over homeless encampment sweeps

A woman with a megaphone is in focus with protesters and a "HOMELESS INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX" sign in the background.
Mayor London Breed listens to Supervisor Rafael Mandelman outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Over the past year, a legal battle over homeless encampments has divided San Francisco and captured the attention of people across the country.

As part of that case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu imposed a preliminary injunction restricting homeless encampment sweeps in December 2022. The controversial and ill-understood injunction has been celebrated by homeless advocates and decried by many residents who believe it has hampered the city’s homelessness response. 

With an appeal of the injunction pending, the high-stakes case has repeatedly boiled over into the political sphere as local elected officials blamed it for conditions on the streets. 

If you feel confused about the case, you’re not alone. Here, The Standard aims to cut through some of the legal jargon and demystify the landmark legal fight. 

How Did We Get Here? 

Last September, an advocacy nonprofit called the Coalition on Homelessness and several homeless plaintiffs alleged in a lawsuit that San Francisco violated its own policies and federal precedent set in a case called Martin v. Boise, which held that cities cannot criminalize sleeping outdoors if no shelter is available. The lawsuit also alleged that the city illegally destroyed homeless people’s property during encampment sweeps.

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

The coalition, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, used the testimonies of homeless people, advocates for homeless people and former city workers along with data about San Francisco’s shelter shortage to make its case that the city criminalized people for being homeless.

The coalition’s attorneys requested an injunction restricting homeless encampment sweeps, which Ryu granted in December 2022. 

What Does the Injunction Say?

A preliminary injunction is a rare legal remedy—issued before any decision is made in the case—intended to grant relief to one party based on the judge’s belief that their argument is likely to succeed.

In the Coalition on Homelessness’ case against the city, Judge Ryu described San Francisco’s initial arguments as “wholly unconvincing” and said the city failed to prove its employees offered a shelter bed to every homeless person affected by a sweep. 

In the injunction, Ryu pointed to a shortage of shelter beds and scant avenues for people to voluntarily access them. Some 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets on a given night, and San Francisco maintains just over 3,000 shelter beds at somewhere between 90% and 95% capacity to make room for emergency admissions. 

A man in black attire pushes a shopping cart full of belongings.
A homeless man walks through Jack London Square in Oakland on March 16, 2020. | Source: Jane Tyska/Getty Images

In Ryu’s 50-page order, the city was “enjoined from enforcing or threatening to enforce” certain laws that “prohibit involuntarily homeless individuals from sitting, lying, or sleeping on public property.”

Unless a court changes or invalidates it, the injunction “shall remain effective as long as there are more homeless individuals in San Francisco than there are shelter beds available.”

A trial date is scheduled for April 15 of next year.

The Confusion

City Attorney David Chiu’s office filed an appeal of the injunction in January, arguing that Ryu’s interpretation of the legal precedent was overly broad and placed the city in an “impossible situation.” 

Ryu referenced the Boise case in her order, quoting the legal text as saying “so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [a jurisdiction] than the number of available beds [in shelters], the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.” 

The City Attorney’s Office interpreted the order to mean the city was unable to move a single homeless person until there were enough shelter beds for every homeless person in San Francisco. Chiu asked Ryu to clarify the injunction and whether it applies to people who refuse offers of shelter, but the request was denied. 

The city’s guidance on adapting to the injunction is laid out in a January 2023 police memo, which dictates that officers may not enforce or threaten to enforce six specific codes related to public lodging. 

In his appeal, Chiu argued that the injunction conflicted with a 2020 legal settlement with the University of California College of the Law, which forced the city to move homeless encampments clustered around the school’s Tenderloin campus. 

At an Aug. 23 hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, an attorney for the Coalition on Homelessness agreed that a person who declines a genuine offer of shelter can no longer be considered “involuntarily homeless,” therefore making them unprotected by the injunction. 

In a subsequent order on Sept. 5, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the two parties agreed on this definition, denying the city’s request in April that the federal court modify the injunction. 

What’s Next?

The seeming agreement on the definition of “involuntary homelessness” has intensified calls from some city leaders to start enforcing anti-camping laws against people who decline shelter. 

But the two legal parties have yet to arrive at a formal stipulation—legal-speak for an agreement—that would modify the injunction and allow the city to change its guidance to city workers regarding encampments. 

Negotiations around a potential change to the injunction blew up last week. The Coalition on Homelessness’ attorneys rejected proposed stipulations that included a clearer definition of “involuntary homelessness" and dictated that the mere presence of a police officer doesn’t constitute a threat of enforcement—another sticking point in the case. 

The two parties jointly informed the Ninth Circuit on Sept. 1 that “unfortunately, [they] have not been able to reach agreement.” The City Attorney’s Office is evaluating next steps in the case.

A chalk message on the ground outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals advocates for an end to homeless encampment sweeps on Aug. 23. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

At an Aug. 10 press conference, the coalition’s attorneys proposed a settlement framework that included several provisions, such as requiring the city to fill an estimated 1,000 vacant housing units, spend unused funds from two propositions and remove police from the enforcement of anti-camping laws. The city balked at the offer, calling it a “political stunt” that undermined good-faith settlement negotiations, which are typically confidential.

Meanwhile, local lawmakers and residents have called for the city to drastically increase its shelter capacity to get people indoors and make it easier to enforce anti-camping laws. 

Mayor London Breed’s budget included funding for 600 shelter beds, but the city will likely need many more than that to accommodate every person experiencing unsheltered homelessness. 

Members of the Board of Supervisors have floated various ideas on how to make that happen. 

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman authored a resolution urging Breed to fund 2,000 more shelter beds, Supervisor Joel Engardio raised the idea of using the Cow Palace as a large-scale shelter and Supervisor Dean Preston authored legislation calling on the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to immediately fill at least 500 supportive housing units within 90 days.

No formal plan to rapidly spin up more shelter has materialized, however.

Annie Gaus can be reached at
David Sjostedt can be reached at