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.