Tensions high in San Francisco as city seeks reversal of ban on clearing homeless encampments

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Tensions flared Wednesday as lawyers for San Francisco argued in appellate court that the city can no longer maintain safe, clean streets while trying to get homeless people indoors after a federal judge banned the city from clearing tent encampments until there are more shelter beds than homeless individuals.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said people are refusing offers of shelter more frequently because of the injunction and that it would cost at least $1.5 billion to house every person who is currently homeless. The order has drawn furious responses from city leaders, including Mayor London Breed, who joined more than 200 people outside the federal courthouse Wednesday to urge the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the order.

“We are compassionate, we are supportive, we continue to help people, but this is not the way," she said. “‘Anything goes in San Francisco’ is not the way.”

But attorneys for homeless residents who sued the city argued before the panel that the district court judge was correct to order the city to stop forcing homeless people to move their belongings and tents until there are thousands more shelter beds available. In fact, they intend to ask the same judge at a hearing Thursday to enforce the injunction.

“There are 3,000 shelter beds in the city for 7,000 or more unhoused people who are sleeping outside every night because they have no choice in the matter,” said Zal Shroff, interim legal director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, at Wednesday's rally.

Frustrations over homeless tents are playing out in court in other U.S. cities, largely in western states governed by the 9th circuit, which includes California and is often on the forefront of key societal issues. In 2018, the appellate court ruled that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping outdoors when there is nowhere else for them to go.

The issue could be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court after lawyers for the small, southern Oregon city of Grants Pass petitioned this week for review of an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the city's anti-camping ordinance even through civil, as opposed to criminal, citations.

It is unclear when the panel of Judges Patrick J. Bumatay, Roopali Desai and Lucy Koh will issue a decision, but they seemed puzzled by the city’s confusion over its enforcement options and they sought clarifications from the other side on which enforcement actions were acceptable.

Joseph Lee, an attorney with Latham & Watkins, agreed in court that the city could cite people who refuse a shelter offer or who have shelter but prefer to sleep outdoors, as they have an alternative. But he hesitated when asked whether the mere presence of police at an encampment operation constituted a threat, saying that it depended on the situation.

On Wednesday, people who want more tents cleared chanted “save our streets” while a smaller crowd of those supporting the injunction rallied on the sidewalk besides them, chanting “stop the sweeps.” The downtown courthouse is near a Whole Foods Market store that closed in April, citing worker safety amid deteriorating street conditions. The crowd had to make space on the sidewalk for two apparently homeless people who were rolling their belongings in a walker and wheeled carrier.

San Francisco officials say their encampment operations allow outreach workers to connect homeless people to services while cleaning areas soiled with trash, used needles and spoiled food. Breed and others also say it’s inhumane to allow unhygienic encampments to fester, scaring away customers and blocking sidewalks for people who use wheelchairs.

Advocates for homeless people say the encampment operations merely serve to harass homeless people as there are few services and appropriate shelter beds available. They say it’s cruel and counterproductive to criminalize people for not having a place to live with affordable housing so scarce.

In September, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California sued San Francisco on behalf of homeless individuals and the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy group.

They said San Francisco was violating the law and not offering shelter beds to people before ordering them to move out of an area, sometimes by threatening arrest. They also said city workers were throwing out people’s personal belongings without storing items for retrieval, as outlined in city policy.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu grilled the city on its practices and in December, issued the emergency injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing or threatening to enforce laws that prohibit sleeping, camping or sitting in public until there are enough shelter beds for homeless individuals. The city is allowed to clean streets or clear streets for access.