A row of two or three tents along Harrison Street.
An encampment on Harrison Street, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

The Coalition on Homelessness today filed a major lawsuit against San Francisco, alleging that the city has violated the constitutional rights of its homeless population.

In the 105-page complaint, released at 7:30 p.m., lawyers from the ACLU of Northern California and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area outlined what it argues are three violations of U.S. Constitutional amendments and instances in which the city allegedly broke its own laws.

“We have a massive body of evidence, collected over three years, that the city is violating homeless people’s rights,” said Jennifer Freidenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “This is a huge lawsuit, and the evidence is overwhelming.”

The lawsuit aims to direct money away from street enforcement, which costs the city tens of millions of dollars every year, and toward building affordable housing. The suit argues that this approach could save hundreds of millions of dollars in downstream costs, such as healthcare, social services, and legal bills.

The suit names seven homeless individuals and the Coalition on Homelessness as plaintiffs. The defendants are: the City and County of San Francisco, the San Francisco Police Department, the San Francisco Public Works Department, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the San Francisco Fire Department, the Department of Emergency Management, London Breed in her capacity as mayor, and Sam Dodge in his capacity as director of the Healthy Streets Operation Center.

Although the lawsuit itself may rumble on for years, an emergency hearing is expected to take place in the next five to six weeks. The hearing could halt elements of the city’s sweeps and bag-and-tags for the duration of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit’s constitutional arguments break down into three main parts.

In the first, it alleges that the city’s “bag and tag” policy violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable seizures by the government. Under the policy, city workers can remove unattended personal belongings from the streets to be collected later, but advocates and homeless people have long insisted that some belongings are nigh impossible to collect, others are stolen, and still more are summarily destroyed.

“Although there are times when [the Department of Public Works] purports to differentiate between trash and people’s belongings,” reads the suit, “DPW more often indiscriminately throws unhoused individuals’ essential items, survival gear, and precious personal property into their crusher trucks.”

The second strand of the suit alleges that the city has broken the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, by threatening citation and arrest to homeless people sleeping in public despite a lack of available shelters. A 2021 report by the Coalition on Homelessness found that the city dismantled encampments, even when it failed to have enough shelters to house everyone living there. That is an apparent violation of city policy.

“Because San Francisco does not have, and has never had, enough shelter to offer to thousands of its unhoused residents, the City is punishing residents who have nowhere to go,” reads the complaint.

The third major strand of the suit alleges that the city has broken the 14th Amendment by exposing homeless people to serious risks to their bodily or mental health, and by sweeping encampments without “due process and fair notice.”

“At every turn, the city has not been complying with even its own policies,” said Zal Shroff, a lead attorney in the case and an author of the complaint. He said that the city’s policies are fairly progressive on paper, but have proven to be “brutal and counterproductive” in practice. Thirty eye-witness declarations have been marshaled in the suit to demonstrate how those policies play out on the ground.

The primary aim of the lawsuit is to see such practices halted indefinitely. The plaintiffs also hope to bind the city to a certain level of spending on affordable housing, and to see a neutral watchdog set up to monitor the city’s compliance.

San Francisco’s attempts to house its homeless population have been controversial for a long time. The city has a high homeless population compared to similar cities, with approximately 18,000 to 22,000 people using the city’s homelessness services every year. And, despite money pouring into the problem — the Department of Homelessness and Supportive housing has a $672 million budget this year — thousands of homeless people are still unsheltered every night.

The process behind encampment sweeps has also been criticized. According to public records requests, some sweeps have been instigated by texts from Mayor London Breed; a merchants’ association that described an encampment as an “unsightly representation of our historic community;” and one member of the public concerned about a “filthy homeless man.”

In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, Emily Cohen, Deputy Director for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive housing, said that San Francisco “has a service-first approach to addressing unsheltered homelessness” and is “focused on expanded temporary shelter and permanent housing to offer people living on the streets a viable alternative place to be that is safe, dignified and welcoming.”

Cohen said that the city has invested in new permanent supportive housing, and has increased its shelter system capacity to 3,068 beds for adults, transitional-aged youth, and families.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. A very great deal of money is spent on the homeless, especially when City, state, federal, foundation, religious institution, and corporate money are added together. There needs to be a professional, objective, neutral evaluation and audit of how this money is spent and what it accomplishes. Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do more of what does work.

  2. Doesn’t the CoH receive a lot of its funding directly from the city of SF? I would like for the city to end any taxpayer support to this organization. They have forfeited their support. The CoH does not want to end homelessness in SF, it clearly wants to maintain the current gravy train and, perhaps, expand its taxpayer support. SF needs to fund people and organization who support the goal of ending homelessness. We should help people who actually became homeless in SF with a focus on those who want to be helped and those who cannot make decisions for themselves. If you were never had a home in SF and if you refuse services, you should not be allowed to sleep on SF streets.

  3. Why is it that other counties (including our fellow liberal/progressive neighbor, Santa Cruz) have “Coalitions to *End* Homelessness” – whereas we have a “Coalition *On* Homelessness”? Could it possibly be that Jennifer Friedenbach and her friends actually would prefer to perpetuate homelessness (and in the meantime, keep themselves earning a high salary in the process?) Perhaps what is needed right now is to *end* our relationship and support of the CoH, and instead put that gigantic chunk of our poor city’s budget toward – wow! – actually *ending* homelessness? We could build housing and fund job training and education for those who really want to get off of the streets and into a productive life. The money could support beds and treatment for those who are mentally and physically unwell, and fund treatment programs for those who are addicted but want to get off of drugs. As for the rest? They should be given a choice – and living on the streets and preying on the poor and working-class San Franciscans should *not* be one of them. Period.

  4. Now that’s extra special. It was the CoH who, out of spite, started sidewalk camping when they handed out tents during the 2016 Super Bowl festivities down Sue Bierman Plaze.

  5. It’s not hard to extrapolate what the city will look like if people get a “constitutional right” to set up semi-permanent and permanent campsites on the sidewalks and in the parks. That will sink the city fast. And I speak with experience of what happened in the Haight during 2020-2021. Even if city beats back this lawsuit (our sit-lie law is not the same as in the Boise case), we should re-allocate our homeless budget and build more shelters and enforce our anti-camping laws.

  6. When the Covid19 pandemic began in 2020 the City and County of San Francisco placed the unhoused in hotels for their safety. The entire nation applauded the effort. However the people that were moved to the the hotels to social distance were using the rooms for dealing drugs, prostitution and violent behavior. Some of the City employees assigned to these hotels told me they felt threatened (some sexualy). Once the unhoused people moved out of the hotels they went straight back to the streets. Then the sweeps happened. Now the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is being sued. Sued for placing them in hotels? Am I missing something here? No good deed goes unpunished.

  7. These organizations want to create Skid Row America. They have zero idea what it is like to watch the City fall apart like this. Homeless people need to be housed, yes. But they should not be able to hoard garbage on the streets. The piles of stolen bikes, let’s not get started on that. This community takes so much from the City and does not want rules applied to it.

  8. I especially appreciate the articles being written covering the issues of homelessness, the severely mentally ill who have become outcasts who can’t access mental healthcare (on the premise that their civil rights would be violated if care was assisted or involuntary, even when they are so ill, paranoid, and/or psychotic that they don’t understand that they are severely ill). Many SMI people do ask for help, but the facilities, psych beds, staff and continuum of care are too limited in number to even begin to address their needs. ZSFGH is SF’s go-to PES (Psych Emergency Services) with a homepage that says they are open 24/7, which is very misleading. As Dr. Linde (former PES physician at ZSFGH) said in his book, they can’t see more than 20 patients a day. More SMI people are turned away, even when acute care is obviously needed and they’ve been 5150’d, than seen. Psych beds fluctuate, have generally been limited to 19–ZSFGH PES is usually on code red–no bed. Been like that for years and years. UCSF is demolishing Langley Porter Psych and not replacing it–haven’t been able to get answers about what they are going to do to replace the 20 or so psych beds they had. Nobody wants to take responsibility in our healthcare system for people with SMI, so we have this terrible, outdoor Bedlam. A diagnosis of SMI makes a person a “hot potato.” It’s discriminatory. Hospitals (administrators, and insurers collude on this) prefer to select for treatments, research, etc., that bring in the most money–SMI isn’t one of them. We desperately need a regional, 3-tier mental hospital dedicated to admitting SMI people, evaluating them, putting together a treatment/therapy plan, helping SMI to stabilize enough to participate in health decisions and management of their illness, a continuum of care with monitoring and step-down, supportive, living arrangements and easy access to their healthcare providers. Although more than half of the U.S. States have requested and gotten IMD waivers to allow them to build or expand facilities for the SMI, Gov. Newsom has only applied for the part of the IMD waiver for services (CalAIM), not for actually expanding psych beds needed so desperately. See “Medicaid Waiver Tracker: Approved and Pending Section 1115 Waivers by State” of 8-19-22. https://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/medicaid-waiver-tracker-approved-and-pending-section-1115-waivers-by-state/ CARE Court is useless if there is no proper facility for judges to divert SMI people to, who are too ill to even participate in court. Last report on ISTs in June said the wait list at our remaining State Hospitals was over 1,700–some have been kept in jail with no treatment for years! As theCA State Auditor, Elaine Howles, said in her report before retiring, the list, at this rate, would grow by several hundred every month. Civil cases are no longer being admitted–no room. We absolutely need a regional hospital with 200 or more psych beds (or convert a newly vacated office bldg.?) Seriously mentally ill people do not belong in jail/prison–cruel and unusual punishment, for an illness that is no fault of their own.

    1. Elfrieda Shukert is correct. I have a brother suffering from mental illness in SF. Despite me being his LSP and Probate Conservator and Citywide, a UCSF program, advocating for him, it took two years of repeated 5150ing to get him finally admitted to PES when they had room. It was a very narrow window of opportunity. SF is just overwhelmed with people needing psychiatric attention. It is just inhuman to allow people to live – and die – on the streets. We just have too many people needing very specialized help which requires special people and facilities which we don’t have. Please don’t believe the Progressive politicos who say all the people living on the streets now lived in SF as housed people for at least 10 years before becoming homeless (this is a report by the far left). Somehow their being homeless is someone else’s fault. It is not enough to say we (SF) can handle this if we just had more money (what the politicos really really want more of) we just have too many people in need. We need to bite the bullet and return many of these people in need back to their home/last place city or state for treatment. I know this is unthinkable to the tax-payer funded “Non-Profits” who are suing SF to keep the people to live on the streets until we build more “housing” for them. Most San Franciscans can barely get housing for themselves but these “Non-Profits” demand we pay more taxes to house these people in need who are from someplace other than SF. Time to vote the “Progressives” out in favor of more pragmatic politicos.

    2. Very interesting, but does not address the issue of mentally ill people who don’t want services and don’t want to take their meds. They cannot be involuntarily institutionalized except under rare circumstances. So no number of psych beds would help them.

  9. I do not understand why a minor without a family will be made a ward of the state because we consider that they lack the capacity to take care of themselves, yet mentally unwell and drug-addicted adults are free to live and die on the streets or in SROs. We’ve lost almost 400 people from drug overdoses in San Francisco this year and there would have been many more were it not for Naloxone. I’m not sure housing is the primary solution for those using fentanyl and for other mentally unwell people.

    1. Good point. If drug-taking is voluntary, how can stopping people from taking drugs and suffering the effects of drugs be proper? Many people voluntarily self-harm. Isn’t this their right?

    1. Where the homeless interfere with the rights of others, for example to safe and clean environment, your point may be well-taken.

  10. It seems you all boast about your accomplishments but those of us who work hard everyday and have to be subject to the thefts and destruction from this group is repulsive! Stop the handouts that keep it going!

  11. FINALLY, the CoH is calling the question on Boise.

    The risk, of course, is that the conservative SF Democrats defending against the suit will prevail in the Trump era judiciary and make bad law.

    And the other risk is that failure to address public squalor will push SF government further to the right as the voters are way over public squalor.

    Remember, if SF spends $30m on “resolving” encampments per year, then that’s enough to fund maybe 50 units of housing. There are 10K homeless people in SF.

  12. Counter sue the vagrants back, for trash, drugs and poop on the sidewalks ! If they want to make trouble, even make vagrancy a crime again! IT IS A CRIME !

  13. Let’s hope this case gets thrown out or the Mission will sink further into being Tenderloin South with even more methhead zombies, bike chop shops, and fentanyl detritus.

    1. Good point. Why should all City social services be concentrated in only two neighborhoods? If the homeless are such a wonderful asset to the City, then spread them around all the neighborhoods, including the wealthy ones. Then we’ll see action take quickly.