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Politics & Policy

Breed won’t rule out arrests of homeless people after SCOTUS decision

A woman in a blue dress stands before microphones at a press conference at City Hall.
Mayor London Breed said the city will take a firmer hand with homeless people after a Supreme Court decision on public camping. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

After a landmark Supreme Court decision on homelessness, Mayor London Breed said Friday that the city will take a harder line on homeless encampments. 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson, which determined that cities can enforce bans on public camping even if no alternative shelter is available, laid the groundwork for cities to enact stricter policies on homeless encampments. At a City Hall press conference, Breed told reporters that the city could issue citations and escalating penalties towards people who refuse shelter. 

“We’ll be able to impose citations. We’ll be able to impose penalties. And things can be aggressively worse as time goes on, in terms of when we’re offering services, we can impose some significant penalties,” Breed said. 

When asked whether someone could go to jail for refusing services, Breed responded, “We are having discussions about what that would entail right now.”

In a 6-3 decision, justices overturned a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had barred the Oregon city of Grants Pass from enforcing public camping laws, which advocates argued violated the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause.

In San Francisco, the Supreme Court decision could drastically alter a separate lawsuit filed by the Coalition on Homelessness in 2022 that resulted in a federal injunction restricting the city from sweeping homeless encampments. Currently, city workers involved in sweeps must determine whether an individual is “involuntarily homeless.” 

The mayor said she was comfortable siding with the six conservative justices on the matter of encampments, which have bedeviled officials in San Francisco and other West Coast cities for years. City Attorney David Chiu, Gov. Gavin Newsom and others had filed briefs with the Supreme Court arguing that the Ninth Circuit precedent on public camping had tied cities’ hands in addressing homelessness. 

“That’s how you get things done,” Breed said about agreeing with the conservative jurists. “I don’t shut anybody out.”

Breed and Chiu said Friday that it will take time to interpret the Supreme Court’s decision and how, specifically, the city will change its policies regarding encampments. Both asserted the city will continue to take a “services-first” approach whereby individuals are offered shelter or other assistance, though it remains to be seen what role police may play in encampment sweeps moving forward. Officials also said Friday that it would take time to train outreach teams with the new rules.

In January 2023, San Francisco police issued a bulletin guiding officers on enforcing the law around encampments after the federal injunction barred the city from enforcing, or even threatening to enforce, laws that “prohibit homeless individuals from sitting, lying or sleeping on public property.”

“Under the injunction, members may still ask individuals who are experiencing homelessness to relocate voluntarily, so long as the City’s request is not accompanied with a threat of enforcement, or any language mentioning those statutes that could reasonably be interpreted as a threat to enforce any of the above listed laws,” the bulletin said.

Now, the City Attorney’s Office plans to advise the police department that the Supreme Court ruling allows them to enforce the laws the injunction ruled it could not. 

On Friday, homeless advocates voiced concern that the Supreme Court ruling criminalizes poverty, forcing homeless people into the criminal justice system and making it more difficult to regain stability. 

Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, called the Supreme Court’s ruling “really extreme.”

“This is going to significantly worsen the challenges that people face in regaining housing,” she said in an interview. “I worry [the city is] just going to fill our jails. And it is not going to get us any closer to the solution that everyone in San Francisco wants.”

Data shows that San Francisco police use force disproportionately against homeless people compared to the general population. Nearly a third of subjects in use-of-force incidents are homeless, a Standard data analysis found. 

“San Francisco should not interpret this ruling as a green light to unlawfully crack down on unhoused residents simply for being unable to afford housing, and instead must commit to moving more people off the streets and into affordable housing or emergency shelter,” said John Do, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, which argues on behalf of homeless advocates.

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