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Judge pauses San Francisco homelessness lawsuit pending Supreme Court ruling

Person in yellow vest pulls on blue tent sitting in front of wall with graffiti
A San Francisco Department of Public Works employee removes a tent during a homeless encampment sweep on Feb. 1. | Source: Philip Pacheco for The Standard

A federal magistrate judge has approved a hold on a lawsuit that challenges San Francisco's homeless encampment sweep policy until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on a highly anticipated case related to the issue.

Judge Donna M. Ryu on Friday granted the city's January request to put a lawsuit filed by the Coalition on Homelessness on hold. City Attorney David Chiu said such a pause was necessary to avoid using public resources on a case that may be inconsequential in a matter of months.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to review Johnson v. Grants Pass, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that homeless people have the right to camp outside if there is no shelter space for them. A decision from the high court is expected in late June, according to the city.

The Grants Pass case and other Ninth Circuit rulings formed the basis of the coalition's lawsuit against the city, which was filed in September 2022 and alleged that local officials had violated the law by destroying homeless encampments without providing an alternate housing option.

“We appreciate that the District Court’s decision spares the City from wasting public resources litigating this case when the entire legal landscape may soon change,” Chiu said in a statement Friday. “The Grants Pass decision underpins every aspect of Plaintiffs’ case against the City and is the foundation of the preliminary injunction issued by the District Court. Not a single argument against San Francisco can be untangled from Grants Pass."

Chiu said that a preliminary injunction issued against the city that limits it from enforcing laws against sitting, lying or lodging in the street will continue despite the litigation's pause on Friday. The city lost an appeal last month that attempted to overturn this restriction.

Nisha Kashyap, the attorney representing the Coalition on Homelessness in its lawsuit against San Francisco, wrote in a statement on Friday that its legal challenge could still have an impact on the city even after the high court's ruling.

"We will be prepared this summer to continue our litigation and ensure that the City does not waste more tax dollars on dehumanizing unhoused people with costly and ineffective practices that will make it harder for people to exit homelessness,” wrote Kashyap.

The Supreme Court's impending ruling on the Grants Pass case comes after the city attorney and Gov. Gavin Newsom urged a reexamination of the lawsuit. The Ninth Circuit determined that the Oregon city could not restrict homeless people from using blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes to protect themselves from the elements.

The case comes in tandem with another Ninth Circuit ruling, Martin v. Boise, which determined that punishing homeless people for sleeping on the streets when no shelter capacity is available amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court's ruling on Grants Pass will have major consequences for West Coast cities that have large homeless populations and where officials are under public pressure from residents to address homeless encampments, which many consider to be public safety and health hazards.