The Coalition on Homelessness is seeking an injunction to stop the city from removing people and their belongings from public property until they have shelter. The lawsuit also claims the city is disposing of tents and other items in a manner that violates their due process rights and protection against unreasonable seizures.
The suit says the city's Healthy Streets Operations Center, created in 2018 as a means of coordinating an interagency response to homelessness, is focused more on a law enforcement response to the problem than on providing services. The operations center includes the city police, fire, sanitation, homelessness and emergency management agencies.
"San Francisco's homelessness crisis is its affordable housing crisis," Jennifer Friedenbach, the coalition's executive director, said in a statement. "Instead of investing in permanent affordable housing, the city has spent millions of dollars to rid our neighborhoods of visible signs of homelessness. Punitive approaches make homelessness worse, as it only makes it harder for people to access already limited services, find employment and secure stable housing."
The plaintiffs asked for the court to appoint a special master at the city's expense to help implement the injunction.
Officials at the city's Department of Emergency Management, which oversees the operations center, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing noted that the city has "nearly doubled the number of housing units dedicated to people leaving homelessness" since 2017.
Of 8,000 homeless people in the city, 57% lack physical shelter, according to the lawsuit. The city had 3,419 beds in its shelters in 2019; the number increased to 5,000 during the height of the COVID pandemic with the creation of additional "shelter in place" units. However, the city made plans to phase out 2,200 of these units this year. During the pandemic, the city stopped allowing people to wait in line to secure a same-day shelter bed, which has made finding shelter even more difficult, the coalition said.
The city is actively removing homeless encampments knowing that at best 40 percent of the people displaced will find housing, the coalition said in its complaint.
Operations to remove encampments typically begin at 7 a.m., according to the suit. By the time city officials know how many beds will be available that evening in city shelters, the homeless people have often dispersed. Police use threats of issuing tickets or arrest to encourage people to leave the scene.
A number of the city's practices as it clears homeless encampments violate city policies, the coalition claims. For example, the city has a bag-and-tag policy that requires giving people prior notice before their belongings are removed from a location, and these items are supposed to be stored so people can recover them. Instead, city sanitation workers often bring a trash truck to dispose of people's items as encampments are cleared.
Other city efforts to discourage homeless encampments include, in some instances, removing public toilets, the suit says, citing a June 2021 tweet by then-city Supervisor Matt Haney complaining about the practice.
What shelter is available to people who are offered services is often not appropriate for people due to their gender, life and family circumstances, or disability status, according to the suit. The coalition also claims the city is violating the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, since many of the people affected have mental or physical conditions that make it harder for them to find shelter.
In the coalition's statement, John Do, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, cited a racial dimension to the city's sweeps of homeless encampments. The lawsuit indicates that 37% of the city's homeless people are Black in a city with a Black population of 6%.
"The current system is complaint-driven, allowing housed residents to dictate traumatizing enforcement against unhoused people who attempt to live in whiter, gentrifying neighborhoods," Do said.
San Francisco's homelessness recovery plan between 2020 and 2022 included a goal to buy or lease 1,500 new permanent supportive housing units, according to the city's website. The city had nearly doubled this number by June of this year, it said.
But the larger context of the housing crisis in San Francisco tells a different story, according to the lawsuit, which says from 2015 to 2022, the city only built a third of the "deeply affordable" housing units it promised. Meanwhile, many formerly rent-controlled units have become market-rate.
The city needs 6,624 housing units to house every currently unsheltered San Franciscan, which will cost $4.8 billion, the coalition estimated, assuming each affordable unit costs $700,000 to build.
The coalition was joined in the lawsuit by seven individuals who have experienced homelessness in San Francisco and city efforts to clear encampments.
The Coalition on Homelessness is represented by Zal K. Shroff and Elisa Della-Piana of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, John Thomas H. Do and Brandon L. Greene of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and Alfred C. Pfeiffer Jr., Joseph H. Lee, Regina Wang and Wesley Tiu of Latham & Watkins LLP.
Counsel information was not immediately available for the City and County of San Francisco.
The case is Coalition on Homelessness et al. v. City and County of San Francisco et al., case number 4:22-cv-05502, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
--Editing by John C. Davenport.
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