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San Francisco is punting its failures on homelessness to Trump judges—Chesa Boudin

The city's inability to provide shelter for the homeless is a failure of San Francisco leaders, not the courts.

By turning to the Trump-packed U.S. Supreme Court for relief, San Francisco politicians are admitting, once again, that they prefer soundbite policies—policies that have repeatedly failed in the past and will actually harm our ability to address other crucial needs in our community. AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard
AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

By Chesa Boudin

For the last eight years, politicians in San Francisco and California have used Donald Trump as a foil. “Standing up to Trump” has been a rallying cry meant to motivate voters and showcase democratic bona fides. It’s, therefore, all the more offensive that some of those same politicians are looking to Trump-appointed judges to excuse their own failures on homelessness. 

By turning to the Trump-packed U.S. Supreme Court for relief, these politicians are admitting, once again, that they prefer sound-bite policies—policies that have repeatedly failed in the past and will actually harm our ability to address other crucial needs in our community. 

It didn’t have to be this way. 

In 2018, despite the opposition of Mayor London Breed, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition C, which levied a tax on big business to fund solutions to homelessness. Thus, San Francisco’s homelessness budget for 2021-2022 was nearly $700 million, fully half that of New York City, which serves a population 10 times our size. Given these substantial resources, San Francisco had a unique opportunity to make progress on homelessness by creating more shelters, transitional housing and expanding essential services. 

Unfortunately, whether because of corruption, indifference, incompetence or bad policies, San Francisco’s approach is failing. Numerous news stories have detailed how: Slow referrals and poor conditions have left available single-room occupancy units empty; those who did get placements were too often kicked out for minor rule violations; hundreds of positions needed to address the crisis remain vacant; poor community outreach hamstrung opportunities to create new treatment or living centers. 

Instead of grappling with that failure, San Francisco’s leadership has chosen to double down on another sound-bite strategy—criminalizing poverty and homelessness. 

Other Western cities have tried handcuffs rather than homes in response to housing crises. In 2022, in a case out of Grants Pass, Oregon, the Ninth Circuit prohibited prosecution of people setting up tents on public property when no alternative shelter was available, deeming it cruel and unusual punishment. Despite the dissent of a Trump-appointed judge, that decision was binding on most of the American West.

In light of that and similar rulings, San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness asked a federal court to enjoin the city from a police response to tents. A federal judge agreed and ordered the city to stop punishing sleeping in public unless there were available shelter beds. This decision should not have been a surprise to anyone who was paying attention—the lower court was following established precedent, and San Francisco was clearly violating its own regulations. But what happened next is shocking. 

In behavior reminiscent of Trump’s attacks on a judge whose ruling he disagreed with, San Francisco’s elected political elite protested outside the federal courthouse while Gov. Gavin Newsom mused about doxing the federal judge who had issued the ruling. It is totally understandable that government officials want more power to address real problems. But it is becoming dangerously common for members of the political branches to blame the judiciary for long-standing policy failures. And let’s be clear: That’s exactly what happened here. The court ruled that people cannot be prosecuted for setting up tents if there is no alternative shelter. The inability to create that shelter is a failure of San Francisco, not the courts.

San Francisco leaders lean on Trump judges

That reality, however, didn’t stop San Francisco from rushing to Trump justices to escape its responsibility. San Francisco has joined with some of the most conservative voices in the country in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the Grants Pass decision. The Court promptly agreed to review the case (leading to the pending case against San Francisco being paused). In a brief filed Friday, San Francisco tried to take a middle-of-the-road position, conceding that a “total prohibition on sleeping outside”—precisely what the ordinance they ask the court to reinstate does—“would effectively criminalize unhoused,” but still urges the court to reverse. Indeed, Trump appointees are expected to reverse and rule that, even if there is no other available shelter for the unhoused, local governments may freely arrest and prosecute people for sheltering on public property. 

To be sure, many taxpaying residents are sick of seeing tents and associate visible poverty with other real public safety challenges. But the power San Francisco’s politicians seek from the Supreme Court will be no solution at all. California law enforcement agencies are spending more but solving fewer crimes than ever before. The San Francisco Police Department is solving just 20% of reported robberies and even lower percentages of rapes, burglaries and car break-ins. Meanwhile, hundreds of cases the police did solve are now being dismissed because of the DA’s failure to prepare and limited courtrooms. It’s hard to see how clearance or conviction rates will improve if we divert limited resources to the impossible task of policing and prosecuting poverty. 

In a few months, when the Supreme Court overturns Grants Pass, San Francisco will double down on its refusal to invest in housing or even short-term shelter in favor of handcuffs and prosecutions. The city will surely succeed in making life for the unhoused more “uncomfortable” and undermining our collective humanity while giving Trump, his tactics, his pundits and his judges the last laugh. The city’s actions in this moment will not only affect the lives of all those who call San Francisco home but also will define our legacy as a beacon of progress or a cautionary tale of lost values.

And when, inevitably, these same politicians tout how they “stand up to Trump,” just remember they were more than happy to seek refuge in his justices to cover their own failures.

Chesa Boudin is the founding executive director of the Criminal Law & Justice Center at Berkeley Law School and the former district attorney of San Francisco.

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