Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

Court order restricting San Francisco homeless sweeps is officially no more

An alley in the Tenderloin with tents, graffiti, a person and a dog in a homeless encampment.
The injunction stems from a Coalition on Homelessness lawsuit filed against the city in 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

An appeals court on Monday overturned an injunction that has prevented San Francisco from enforcing or threatening to enforce laws that prohibit sitting, lying or lodging on public property against “involuntarily homeless” people for over a year.

The ruling is a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision late last month which gives American cities more latitude in clearing homeless encampments, a major victory for elected officials and residents who have been raising concerns about the conditions of San Francisco’s streets for years. Advocates have spoken out against the high court’s ruling, claiming it criminalizes homelessness and sweeps the issue under the rug. 

The direct result of the Supreme Court’s decision and Monday’s ruling weren’t immediately known. However, city officials such as Mayor London Breed have indicated that San Francisco will start citing homeless individuals or even arrest them if they refuse shelter. Officials have told The Standard that outreach workers will likely have to make fewer determinations when they clear an encampment. The city is still working through its exact policy and has yet to release a comprehensive plan on how they will respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Monday’s ruling is part of a lawsuit filed in 2022 by the Coalition on Homelessness, which claimed that San Francisco was breaking the law during its encampment sweeps. The case relied upon previous rulings that the Supreme Court overturned in Johnson v. Grants Pass, specifically surrounding claims about the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.

A federal magistrate judge earlier this year put the lawsuit on hold until the Supreme Court’s ruling, agreeing with the city’s attorneys that resources would be better spent waiting until the high court’s decision was made.

The injunction was ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu in December 2022 to the dismay of the mayor. It specifically called out San Francisco for failing to prove that it was offering shelter to every person impacted by its homeless sweeps, pointing to a dearth of alternatives for unhoused individuals.

A separate part of the lawsuit which has to do with 4th Amendment questions and how the city can handle homeless people’s property will still be sorted out in local courts. Homeless residents are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“This will give our City more flexibility to provide services to unhoused people while keeping our streets healthy and safe,” said City Attorney David Chiu in a statement Monday. “It will help us address our most challenging encampments, where services are often refused and re-encampment is common.”

Nisha Kashyap, an attorney representing the Coalition on Homelessness, said there are still safeguards in place for the city’s homeless population.

“The city still has policies that require it to offer shelter,” said Kashyap, referring to Proposition Q, which passed in 2016 and requires the city to offer alternatives to people living on the street.  “We expect the city to still follow the local law.”