San Francisco Chronicle

S.F. questions ban on clearing tent camps

- By Bob Egelko Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @BobEgelko

A federal magistrate has prohibited San Francisco from removing homeless people from encampment­s as long as the city lacks shelters to house them. But city officials say they’re caught in a conflict, which the magistrate needs to resolve, because a court-approved settlement in a 2020 case required them to remove homeless tents from the Tenderloin district.

If the latest ruling bars removal of any homeless person from an encampment until there is housing available for all of them, “it is impossible for San Francisco to comply with both injunction­s,” City Attorney David Chiu’s office said Tuesday in a filing with U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu, who issued the Dec. 23 order.

Chiu’s office asked Ryu to “clarify” her order and allow the city to remove any unhoused person who has been offered an available shelter bed and refuses to accept it. Advocates for homeless people in the case contend that San Francisco, under federal appeals court rulings cited by the magistrate, cannot remove anyone from a street until it provides shelter for everyone who needs it.

The city was sued in 2020 by UC Hastings College of the Law — recently renamed UC College of the Law, San Francisco — on behalf of business owners and residents of the school’s Tenderloin neighborho­od over the proliferat­ion of homeless encampment­s and overall deteriorat­ing conditions. Under a settlement a month later, the city agreed to immediatel­y remove 70% of the tents; move their occupants into hotel rooms, shelters or city-approved encampment­s; and then make reasonable efforts to eliminate remaining encampment­s in the area.

In September, however, the Coalition on Homelessne­ss and a group of homeless people accused the city of violating standards set by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 when it ruled that the Constituti­on’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits a local government from making it a crime to sleep on a public street or sidewalk when no homeless shelters are available.

Mayor London Breed said most of the people the city is evicting from encampment­s either have other housing or are refusing offers of shelter. But Ryu said in her Dec. 23 order that San Francisco has not disputed that it is removing homeless people without offering shelter, and has seized and destroyed some of their property.

In its final tabulation for 2022, the city said it had 7,754 homeless people, with nearly 4,400 of them unsheltere­d and sleeping on the sidewalk, in a tent or in a vehicle. According to a UCLA sociologis­t quoted in a filing by the plaintiffs in Ryu’s court, the city’s shelter system had only 10 to 50 unoccupied beds on any given night.

In Tuesday’s filing, Deputy City Attorney James Emery argued that the 2020 settlement still requires San Francisco to remove encampment­s from the Tenderloin and that it cannot be forced to provide shelter for all of its homeless population, including those who — according to city workers — will not accept it.

The plaintiffs’ “expansive definition of ‘involuntar­ily homeless’ would mean San Francisco’s compliance with one person’s (constituti­onal) right would depend on availabili­ty of shelter beds for all other unhoused persons in the City, regardless of their interest or willingnes­s to occupy those beds,” Emery wrote. “It would take years to build the requisite shelter beds and cost City taxpayers at least $1.45 billion more than San Francisco has already appropriat­ed for homeless services.”

But attorney Hadley Rood of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represents the homeless plaintiffs in the suit, said San Francisco’s legal claims are contradict­ed by the facts on the ground.

“The shelter system is closed,” Rood said Wednesday. “There are 1,000 people on a wait list that has not been opened since early in the pandemic. The city is not offering shelters to the vast majority of people who need them.”

If Ryu does not issue a revised order immediatel­y, Emery asked her to consider the issue at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 12.

 ?? Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle 2021 ?? Viviane Calabria sits on S.F.’s 19th Street as a Public Works staffer clears behind her. The city says court orders about encampment­s contradict each other.
Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle 2021 Viviane Calabria sits on S.F.’s 19th Street as a Public Works staffer clears behind her. The city says court orders about encampment­s contradict each other.

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