Sep 27, 2022 - News

San Francisco accused of violating constitutional rights of unhoused people

Person sitting on a sidewalk next to a tent.

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

San Francisco faces a new lawsuit that alleges the city has violated the constitutional rights of unhoused people.

Driving the news: The lawsuit, filed Tuesday evening by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness and seven unhoused people, alleges the city has violated the constitutional rights of unhoused people by criminalizing homelessness, despite the lack of shelters, specifically by:

  • Forceful displacement with citations, fines and/or arrests; and
  • Sweeps, or the seizing and destruction of the belongings of unhoused individuals on public sidewalks.

The big picture: About 20,000 people, 2.5% of San Francisco's population, are expected to experience homelessness this year.

  • Meanwhile, people of color experience homelessness at disproportionate rates in SF, making this an issue of racial injustice, Zal Shroff, senior attorney for racial justice at LCCRSF, told Axios.

By the numbers: Citing public records over a six-month period between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2021, the lawsuit alleges the city displaced about 1,200 unhoused people, but only stored 195 items or bags of belongings. The implication, according to the suit, is that the city is disposing of peoples' belongings, ultimately violating the legal requirement that the city store confiscated property for 90 days.

  • Over the past three years, the suit alleges the city has cited or arrested at least 3,000 unhoused people for sleeping or residing in public, despite not having enough shelter beds to offer.

What they're saying: San Francisco is criminalizing homelessness, Shroff told Axios. "What they want to do is sweep it under the rug, they want to pretend like they've made an impact and that there's no more homelessness in the city just because they've destroyed everyone's stuff."

  • Couper Orona, a 48-year-old former firefighter who lost permanent housing about five years ago following a divorce, wishes the city "would have more of a heart."
  • Orona, who in a legal declaration attested to witnessing sweeps on "countless occasions," told Axios that not all unhoused people are drug addicts or alcoholics, saying, "Not everyone is all these evil things that people think about [those] who are unhoused."

The other side: San Francisco Mayor London Breed's office said it's unable to comment on the lawsuit, but noted the city is focused on expanding both temporary and permanent housing for people.

  • Since June 2020, for example, the city says it has added nearly 3,000 new permanent supportive housing units.
  • The city attorney's office echoed the mayor's office, saying SF is working on solutions to "alleviate our homelessness crisis," Jen Kwart, its director of communications and media relations, said in a statement to Axios.
  • Kwart added that the city still needs to review the complaint and will respond in court.

What to watch: The lawsuit is a "last resort" that aims to force the city to stop "destroying people's property in large numbers," Shroff said, adding the merits of the suit's claims are strong. He's hopeful the city agrees to "come to the table to discuss this because it's quite clear that what they're doing is blatantly unconstitutional."

  • Otherwise, he said, the next step would be to seek an emergency hearing in six weeks.

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