Aug 24, 2023 - News

Tensions boil over San Francisco's homeless encampment sweeps

Aerial view showing tidy rows of tents

Aerial view of a temporarily sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless during the pandemic in May 2020 in San Francisco. Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images

A rash of legal disputes in San Francisco is highlighting the city's ongoing conflict over how to tackle homelessness.

Driving the news: Hundreds of people faced off in dueling protests outside the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday as the city fights a temporary court order preventing it from clearing homeless encampments.

  • The Coalition on Homelessness (COH) plans to request that a district court appoint a special master to ensure the city's compliance with the order at a hearing Thursday, the San Francisco Standard reports.

Catch up quick: The nonprofit filed a lawsuit last fall alleging San Francisco violates the rights of homeless people by seizing and destroying their property, threatening their physical and mental health and "punishing residents who have nowhere to go."

  • A federal judge in December issued an order blocking the city from conducting encampment sweeps against people who are "involuntarily homeless," citing San Francisco's shortage of beds for unhoused individuals.
  • In January, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights San Francisco (LCCRSF) filed a motion alleging San Francisco violated that order by conducting sweeps targeting unhoused people, including during the bomb cyclone that month.
  • The city asked the appeals court Wednesday to lift the order blocking encampment sweeps.

What they're saying: COH's attorney Joseph Lee argued during the hearing Wednesday that the city uses sweeps "as a tool to criminalize homelessness and keep involuntarily homeless individuals from sitting, sleeping or lying anywhere at any time of day or night."

  • City officials, however, maintain that encampments can pose a health and safety risk for housed and unhoused people.

Of note: Lee acknowledged during the hearing that people who reject "genuine" offers may not be considered "involuntarily homeless," something City Attorney David Chiu in a statement called a "major concession."

  • "We are pleased Plaintiffs agree that enforcement action can be taken against individuals who refuse shelter," said Chiu, who stressed that the court order has hampered San Francisco's ability to combat homelessness.

The big picture: San Francisco has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, according to a July report from the city's controller office.

What to watch: San Francisco has until October to secure staffing, funding and logistics for the rollout of Gov. Gavin Newsom's CARE Court program, which will allow judges to compel people with severe mental illness into treatment based on petitions from family or social workers.


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