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Politics & Policy

Homeless sweeps could ramp up in SF after major Supreme Court ruling

"We will continue to offer shelter, but we will not allow those who reject offers of help to remain where they are," said Mayor London Breed in response to the ruling.

A worker in a bright yellow rain suit uses a shovel and rake to clean a trash-littered street beside a sanitation truck and a makeshift tent encampment.
The high court’s ruling will likely have direct impacts on the ground in San Francisco, including the outcome of an ongoing lawsuit between the city and the Coalition on Homelessness. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on Friday that allows U.S. cities to carry out stricter rules on public camping, a decision that’s expected to result in on-the-ground changes in San Francisco where street conditions have long defined political debate and the city’s reputation nationally.

In a 6-3 decision along partisan lines, justices overturned a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had barred the Oregon city of Grants Pass from enforcing rules against homeless people sleeping outside that advocates argued violated the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause.

In a blistering rejection of homeless advocates’ claims that the Oregon city’s laws were a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the conservative Supreme Court justices determined that “homelessness is complex. It’s causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it.”

“A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness,” stated the opinion, delivered by Justice Neil Gorsuch. “The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime … For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

The ruling’s effects weren’t immediately clear on Friday. However, encampment sweeps will likely become easier for American cities to carry out.

Street encampments have become a symbol of homelessness and destitution in San Francisco and other U.S. cities—and the ruling may open the door for new rules restricting where people can sleep on public property.

Changes to San Francisco’s homelessness policies

Officials told The Standard that San Francisco’s policies regarding shelter wouldn’t stop, and the overall strategy of offering services will stay intact. That differs from a city like Grants Pass, which passed highly punitive laws against sleeping in public which faced legal challenges over the years that eventually reached the Supreme Court.

But some on-the-ground changes could happen in San Francisco. For example, officials said outreach teams that encounter encampments in the city may now be able to clear them after simply asking inhabitants whether they would like to enter a shelter. Today, those teams must make other determinations, such as whether an individual is involuntarily homeless. Officials said the high court’s ruling could change that.

A woman in a blue dress speaks at a podium with several microphones bearing news logos, inside a grand building with red carpet and wooden doors. Two people are recording her.
At a press conference on Friday, Mayor London Breed said the city would take an increasingly strict stance on homeless encampments, penalties that include citations and possible arrests. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Mayor London Breed said the city won’t tolerate instances where homeless individuals reject shelter.

“There are many people struggling on our streets with addiction and mental illness, and our outreach workers will offer access to treatment while we also work to compel those who are the sickest into care through new tools like expanded conservatorship,” she said. “But those who refuse our help or those who already have shelter will not be allowed to camp on our streets. It’s not healthy, safe, or compassionate for people on the street and it’s not acceptable for our neighborhoods.”

Politically, the ruling is a major victory for San Francisco’s moderate elected officials and concerned residents, who have taken an increasingly hard stance on homelessness in recent years. 

Fierce opposition to the ruling from a long list of local advocacy groups is all but certain. Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach, one of the city’s most influential advocates for unhoused residents, called the Supreme Court’s decision a “real kick in the knees” to people on the streets in an interview.

“This decision basically says that it is okay to cite and arrest people who are too poor to afford the rent and have no choice but to sleep on the street,” said Friedenbach. “No amount of arrests will lead people off the streets. It just exacerbates homelessness.”

Critics of the ruling are expected to argue that the court’s decision won’t impact the deeper-rooted issues of the crisis facing San Francisco’s streets, like affordable housing.

A worker in protective gear pressure-washes a street emitting steam, near graffiti-covered walls and parked cars, while onlookers, some in reflective vests, observe.
A DPW staffer cleans the street during a homeless encampment sweep, now called an “encampment resolution,” along Dore Alley in San Francisco in February. | Source: Philip Pacheco for The Standard

At the Supreme Court, petitioners argued that federal courts had overstepped in preventing cities from combatting homelessness, stating in previous oral arguments that the Ninth Circuit’s “failed experiment” had fueled the spread of encampments while “harming those it purports to protect.” Those seeking to uphold the appeals court ruling have said petitioners want to criminalize homelessness or are pushing the homeless problem around through sweeps.

The Coalition on Homelessness’ lawsuit against San Francisco will now proceed after a federal magistrate judge paused the case until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. 

The coalition’s claims about the Eighth Amendment will likely be impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision. That includes an injunction that restricts how the city can sweep encampments. Other claims about the Fourth Amendment—how San Francisco can handle homeless people’s property—will continue to be hashed out locally.

Read the U.S. Supreme Court decision:

Nisha Kashyap, one of the lead attorneys representing advocates in the lawsuit against the city, said she expects the Supreme Court’s decision to potentially nullify the local injunction.

“I think many folks are deeply concerned about this decision,” said Kashyap. “It’s important that San Francisco doesn’t interpret this as a way to crack down on people who don’t have anywhere else to go. I think that would be a grave mistake.”

The coalition’s suit was filed in September 2022 and accused the city of violating the law by destroying homeless people’s property without offering alternative shelter.

“San Francisco has and will continue to take a compassionate, services-first approach to addressing our homelessness crisis,” said City Attorney David Chiu in a statement. “It will take time to analyze this decision and chart a path forward to change policies on the ground and ensure our litigation catches up with the Supreme Court’s decision today.”

In a statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the Supreme Court’s ruling “removes the legal ambiguities that have tied the hands of local officials for years.”

“California remains committed to respecting the dignity and fundamental human needs of all people and the state will continue to work with compassion to provide individuals experiencing homelessness with the resources they need to better their lives,” Newsom said.