Lawsuit asks San Francisco to stop homeless camp sweeps


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Homeless people and their advocates sued the city of San Francisco on Tuesday, demanding that it stop harassing and destroying the property of people living on the streets with nowhere to go, and in an effort to force the city to spend billions of dollars for affordable housing. which will keep the residents housed.

The San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Committee and others filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness and seven people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The defendants include the city, several city departments and Mayor London Breed.

The lawsuit says San Francisco “presents the image of a caring municipality” with a plan to address homelessness, but decades of inaction on affordable housing has forced thousands into tents and vehicles as shelter. An annual homelessness survey revealed 7,754 homeless people in 2022, with almost 60% living without shelter.

Not only has the city failed to build affordable housing, the complaint says, but the city uses heavy-handed tactics to relocate the homeless, threatening to arrest or arrest people, and taking people’s belongings away when early morning camp sweeps in which shelter is not offered, as required by law.

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FILE – People sleep near discarded clothing and used needles on a street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, July 25, 2019. Homeless advocates sued the city of San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, demanding that he stop harassing and destroying the property of people living on the streets and committing to spending $4 billion on affordable housing. (AP Photo/Janie Har, File)
(AP Photo/Janie Har)

In addition to stopping illegal practices, “we need to change the conversation about what’s causing homelessness here and find proven solutions,” said Zal K. Shroff, senior counsel for the Advocates’ Committee.

San Francisco is among several West Coast cities where street homelessness has come under increasing criticism from politicians and housed residents. California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, has embraced the cleaning of tent camps, saying it is neither compassionate nor safe to allow people to live outdoors.

But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2018 that it is unconstitutional to cite or arrest people for sleeping in public when there is no shelter available.

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FILE - A man stands near tents on a sidewalk in San Francisco, Nov. 21, 2020. Homelessness advocates sued the city of San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, demanding it stop harassing and destroy the property of people living on the streets and commit to spending $4 billion on affordable housing. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

FILE – A man stands near tents on a sidewalk in San Francisco, Nov. 21, 2020. Homelessness advocates sued the city of San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, demanding it stop harassing and destroy the property of people living on the streets and commit to spending $4 billion on affordable housing. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In statements, the mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office declined to comment, but said San Francisco is focused on expanding temporary shelters and providing more permanent housing options. Breed’s office said the city has added nearly 3,000 permanent supportive housing units since 2020.

“Once we receive the lawsuit, we will review the complaint and respond in court,” said Jen Kwart, spokeswoman for City Attorney David Chiu’s office.

Shroff acknowledged that the court could not order San Francisco to build affordable housing, but the group hopes the lawsuit will push city leaders in that direction.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Homeless people use illegal drugs at an encampment along Willow St. in the downtown Tenderloin neighborhood on Thursday, February 24, 2022 in San Francisco, CA. London Breed, Mayor of San Francisco, is the 45th Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco. She served as District 5 Supervisor and served as Chair of the Board of Supervisors from 2015 to 2018.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Homeless people use illegal drugs at an encampment along Willow St. in the downtown Tenderloin neighborhood on Thursday, February 24, 2022 in San Francisco, CA. London Breed, Mayor of San Francisco, is the 45th Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco. She served as District 5 Supervisor and served as Chair of the Board of Supervisors from 2015 to 2018.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The lawsuit asks the court to order the city to stop punishing homeless people for sleeping and living on public property until it has enough shelter to offer. He’s also asking the court to stop the city from seizing property and appoint a monitor to make sure the city follows through.

The seven named plaintiffs include David Martinez, a Latino who sleeps in a cardboard box because city workers continue to confiscate his tent and other property, according to the complaint.

Two of the plaintiffs are black men unable to afford housing in the city where they were born and raised. Another is a double amputee whose prostheses were taken by city workers in June.

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A homeless person sleeps on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, California, U.S., Thursday, April 14, 2022. San Francisco was home to more than 9,800 homeless people at the last count released in 2019, up up more than 30% from two years earlier, according to a city point estimate that is likely a significant undercount.

A homeless person sleeps on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, California, U.S., Thursday, April 14, 2022. San Francisco was home to more than 9,800 homeless people at the last count released in 2019, up up more than 30% from two years earlier, according to a city point estimate that is likely a significant undercount.
(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Toro Castaño said in a legal statement that in August 2020, he packed his things as ordered, but city workers threw all his things in a garbage truck, including his mother’s wedding kimono and a MacBook Pro laptop. They offered him a bed in a homeless shelter, which he refused for fear of catching the coronavirus.

“I don’t think it was right to force me to make this difficult healthcare choice under threat of a citation,” Castaño, who is also Latino, said in his statement.

The city does not give 72 hours notice before clearing an area or bagging and tagging property for homeless people to pick up later, in violation of its own policies, according to the complaint. Homeless outreach workers only know hours after people have been evicted what type of shelter, if any, is available that day.

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“Nobody’s saying the city shouldn’t be taking out the trash, but when we see MacBook Pros, that’s just a direct targeting of homeless people,” Shroff said.

San Francisco has about 3,500 shelter beds, the mayor’s office said.

The lawsuit estimates that San Francisco would need to build nearly 6,700 new affordable units, at an estimated cost of $4.8 billion, to house every person currently homeless in San Francisco.


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