ATTORNEYS AND ADVOCATES for the unhoused have urged San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu to begin settlement discussions in a lawsuit about the city’s encampment sweeps.

The case, Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, was filed in federal court in the fall of 2022. It is essentially a nod to a federal appeals court decision in the case of Martin v. Boise that ruled cities cannot move or displace people living on the street if they do not first offer them shelter, or if there is no shelter available for people in the first place. The suit also alleges that the city illegally destroyed people’s property.

The Coalition’s case argues that San Francisco had been undergoing dehumanizing encampment sweeps that flew in the face of both city and federal law.

“The settlement framework that we’ve laid out today celebrates the city’s proposed solutions to the homelessness crisis, while also asking for accountability to ensure that the city actually makes good on its commitments to help end that crisis.”

Zal Shroff, acting legal director for LCCRSF

John Do, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said at a press conference on Aug. 10 that the case is about the “criminalization of homelessness and poverty.”

Zal Shroff, acting legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), also spoke at the virtual event on Aug. 10.

“The settlement framework that we’ve laid out today celebrates the city’s proposed solutions to the homelessness crisis, while also asking for accountability to ensure that the city actually makes good on its commitments to help end that crisis,” Shroff said.

‘Common sense’ settlement conditions

In a letter sent to Chiu’s office dated Aug. 10, the plaintiffs outline several “common sense” settlement conditions.

First, San Francisco should prioritize affordable housing and expansion of temporary shelter for unhoused people. The plaintiffs concede that the city has already taken several steps to create more affordable housing, but ask that all vacant supportive housing units be filled, alleging that there are “close to 1,000” of them. Also, they ask the city to expend unused but budgeted funds intended for housing, shelter, treatment and prevention by the end of the fiscal year.

The plaintiffs also asked to “stop sending police to solve housing issues,” and that housing or shelter should be offered to every individual at an encampment before any other steps are taken. They’d also like to see better trash disposal made available to people in encampments and said city street-sweeping schedules should not be conducted between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. when unhoused residents are trying to sleep.

“The City cannot use street cleanings as a pretext to harass unhoused residents instead of appropriately cleaning the area,” reads the proposal.

Finally, the plaintiffs ask for a court-appointed monitor to closely track the city’s commitments and interactions with unsheltered people and request that protocols should be well-documented to ensure compliance.

City attorney fires back

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu is pictured giving a speech in a forum early this year. On Aug. 10, Chiu criticized a press conference held by the advocates for the unhoused — calling it “antics” and accusing them of bypassing proper court procedure for settlement discussions on encampments lawsuit. (Olivia Wynkoop/Pagransen)

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu referred to the Aug. 10 press conference as “antics” and accused the plaintiffs of bypassing normal court procedure for settlement discussions, which involve a judge.

“Legal parties do not engage in settlement negotiations via the press,” Chiu said in a statement released by his office.

Chiu also said that if the Coalition on Homelessness wanted to reach a settlement, “this political stunt is certainly not the way to go about it and counterproductive to their stated goals.”

The city attorney went one step further, saying that the actions of the plaintiffs have “significantly exacerbated” conditions on San Francisco streets.

Specifically, Chiu is referring to a preliminary injunction ordered by a judge in December that he said prohibits the city from enforcing laws related to sitting, sleeping or lying on the street.

To allegations that the plaintiffs have made the problem worse, Shroff disagrees.

“The Court’s injunction order expressly authorizes street cleanings and encampment cleanings, the removal of health and safety hazards, and the enforcement of drug and accessibility laws. So any suggestion that the injunction has had any impact on the City’s response to genuine street emergencies is patently false,” he said. “Indeed, San Francisco had an opportunity to make that case in court and failed to do so — twice. The City’s attempt to blame the court’s injunction is a distraction in what should be a genuine effort to address the affordable housing crisis.”

“Indeed, San Francisco had an opportunity to make that case in court and failed to do so — twice. The City’s attempt to blame the court’s injunction is a distraction in what should be a genuine effort to address the affordable housing crisis.”

Zal Shroff, LCCRSF

Chiu echoed Mayor London Breed by saying that many people who are offered housing or shelter by the city refuse to take it. Chiu in his response cited the “over half of all unhoused individuals” approached by city workers who “continue to reject repeated offers of shelter.”

Shroff combatted that argument with numbers during the press conference.

“San Francisco has 3,000 shelter beds for at least 7,000 homeless individuals in the city,” he said, with a shelter system that is at functional capacity every day. “That alone should tell you that most unhoused people in San Francisco desperately want and need shelter; the shelter system is full for that very reason.”

A Department of Public Works cleaning truck waits near a homeless encampment on Larch Street in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 2023. The city that has long been on the forefront of finding solutions to homelessness currently finds itself locked in a pending legal dispute over whether it can clear tent encampments in the name of public health and safety even if the displaced residents have nowhere else to go. (Joe Dworetzky/Pagransen)

Shroff said the few who may not want to enter shelter are being scapegoated.

“We don’t have a street homelessness crisis because some small number of people are refusing shelter,” he said.

The San Francisco City Controller’s Office reported that last year the city only had 52 shelter beds for every 100 persons living on the street, below the peer average of 78 beds per 100 persons when compared to other cities.

Seeking clarification

Earlier this year, the city argued that if an individual received a bona fide offer of shelter, he or she was not “involuntarily homeless” as contemplated by the injunction: if they accepted the offer, they had shelter; if they rejected it, they were homeless on a voluntary basis.

The city sought that clarification because it feared that the injunction could be read to prevent camp closures until there was a bed for all the unsheltered individuals living in San Francisco, a virtual impossibility under current circumstances. If that reading were correct, the city said it would be left in an “impossible position.”

The letter sent to Chiu was signed by LCCRSF, ACLU of Northern California, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, National Police Accountability Project, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Disability Rights California, and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

“Despite Plaintiffs’ antics, San Francisco will continue to advance our arguments in court and fight for our city’s ability to maintain a healthy and safe San Francisco for all.”

City Attorney David Chiu

“Despite Plaintiffs’ antics, San Francisco will continue to advance our arguments in court and fight for our city’s ability to maintain a healthy and safe San Francisco for all,” wrote Chiu on Aug. 10. “Today, Plaintiffs disrespected the Court’s efforts and discouraged thoughtful settlement discussions.”

Chiu has asked the court to invalidate the injunction and a hearing on the matter will take place in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 23.

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.