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Politics & Policy

San Francisco to resume enforcing laws against homeless people who refuse shelter

Members of San Francisco Public Works sweep up garbage during a homeless encampment resolution, previously known as encampment sweeps, along Minna Street between 7th Street and Julia Street in San Francisco on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Monday that city workers will resume enforcing laws against sitting, lying or sleeping on public property against people who refuse shelter or are otherwise already sheltered. 

In a memo, Breed cited a recent acknowledgment at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that a December 2022 injunction—which restricted city workers from moving or clearing homeless encampments—only applies to people who are “involuntarily homeless.” Those who refuse specific offers of shelter cannot be defined as such, the court acknowledged. 

“To make sure our workers are supported and confident in their work with this change, over the next few weeks we will be reiterating and updating their training and making sure they understand what they can and cannot do,” Breed wrote. “In line with the injunction as clarified by the Ninth Circuit’s order, the City will soon begin to enforce laws prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks against voluntarily homeless individuals.”

The injunction came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Coalition on Homelessness and several unhoused individuals, who accused the city of violating its own policies and federal precedent by dismantling encampments without offering shelter. The lawsuit also accused the city of destroying property during those operations. 

At an Aug. 23 Ninth Circuit hearing, attorneys for the city and the Coalition on Homelessness appeared to agree that the injunction does not protect people who refuse offers of shelter. 

“Increased training can be an important step towards compliance, and we hope to see the City taking that issue seriously,” said John Do, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which is representing the coalition.

According to Breed's memo, city staff will answer questions about specific offers of shelter space being offered. If the person declines because they don't like the options, then "generally the City does not have to treat the person as involuntarily homeless," she wrote.

City data suggests that since U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued the injunction last December, the total number of encampments has risen but that more individuals have been placed in shelter.

The city reopened its shelter waitlist in July, and the list has since grown to hundreds of names. The city currently has 2,935 shelter beds, while over 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets on any given night, according to the most recent count. The city reserves some shelter beds for emergency placements.

"The idea that unhoused people are refusing shelter in large numbers is completely unfounded and contradicts the evidence submitted to the court that underpins the injunction,” said Zal Shroff, an attorney for the plaintiffs and interim legal director with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mayor London Breed cheers for Supervisor Rafael Mandelman at a rally outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 23, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

In a blog post, Breed accused plaintiffs in the case of "interfering with" city workers involved in encampment operations.

"They will film our city workers," Breed wrote. "They will try to tell our workers what they can and cannot do. These activists are the same people who hand out tents to keep people on the street instead of working to bring them indoors, as we are trying to do."

In a legal filing, City Attorney David Chiu alleged that one plaintiff had been offered shelter multiple times, including a "tiny home" cabin, and refused the option after speaking with their lawyer. The Department of Emergency Management estimated in July 2022 that between 15% and 20% of individuals encountered by city homeless outreach workers already had confirmed shelter.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that the group "does not encourage people to refuse adequate shelter when offered and instead works daily to help people get shelter.

"The goal of the coalition is to create permanent solutions to homelessness, while working to protect the human rights of those forced to remain on the streets," Friedenbach said. "Any statement to the contrary is false.”

Chiu appealed the injunction to the Ninth Circuit earlier this year and argued, among other things, that the court order was overly broad and vague, placing the city in an "untenable" position.

The Coalition on Homelessness' attorneys have argued that unhoused individuals cannot easily access shelter of their own accord and that the city has violated the injunction by continuing to conduct unsanctioned sweeps.

Tensions over the injunction culminated in dueling rallies outside the Ninth Circuit on Aug. 23, where Mayor London Breed and other officials decried the impact of the court order and homeless advocates condemned encampment sweeps as inhumane and counterproductive. A Ninth Circuit panel denied the city's request to modify the injunction, but is still evaluating other aspects of its appeal.

Since then, Gov. Gavin Newsom has weighed in on the controversial court order, filing a brief in support of the city's position and saying he hopes the case makes it to the Supreme Court.

"That’s a hell of a statement coming from a progressive Democrat,” Newsom told Politico.