Former San Francisco employees, including a director who worked with the homeless, allege that the city routinely cleared encampments while knowing there were not enough shelter beds available, according to new testimony filed in court Friday.
Encampments were often cleared at the behest of the mayor and city officials, according to the testimony of Kaki Marshall, who was the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s former Director of Outreach and Temporary Shelter from October, 2018, to August, 2019. Marshall believed the policies “fundamentally harmed people and actually exacerbated San Francisco’s homelessness crisis.”
“There were many times when I was working for San Francisco that I believed I was being asked to break the law,” wrote Marshall, who is formerly homeless and was a homeless activist.
These new testimonies were filed as a part of a lawsuit brought in September against the City and County of San Francisco over the treatment of unhoused individuals. The Coalition on Homelessness, which filed the lawsuit alongside seven homeless people, alleges that the city broke several of its own policies and violated the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ Boise ruling, which prohibits cities from relocating homeless people if there isn’t sufficient shelter to offer them.
The testimony is intended to support an injunction that would prevent all homeless encampment sweeps until the lawsuit is resolved. A hearing regarding that injunction is scheduled for Dec. 22.
In Friday’s filings, Marshall said they were explicitly directed by the former head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Jeff Kositsky, to forcibly move unhoused people and destroy their property without taking the time to inquire about their needs.
The city cleared encampments in response to “daily mandates” by Mayor London Breed, Marshall stated: “Mayor Breed ordered us to carry out sweeps because she did not want to be seen near unhoused people while she was at lunch, at the gym, at fundraisers, or at meetings on public business.”
To accommodate people who were suddenly allocated beds at the behest of city politicos, other needy unhoused folks were pushed off shelter waitlists, Marshall alleged.
While at their former post, Marshall said they reviewed text messages from Breed, instructing the department’s Healthy Streets Operations Center team to remove encampments by a certain deadline. Marshall, knowing there wasn’t enough shelter available, said they would attempt to whisk unhoused folks away from the area by offering to buy them lunch. They said that they worried another city worker in their position might forcibly move the individual without offering resources, given the “pressure” from the mayor.
The supervisors could sway the city, too, Marshall stated: “Mr. Kositsky would say that we had to make the supervisors happy.”
Marshall also suggested the method the department used to track shelter refusal was misleading. The Homelessness and Outreach Team would warn unhoused folks that the police were coming, without taking steps to offer shelter, Marshall alleged. Despite the lack of offers, they wrote, the city recorded those individuals as having “refused” shelter, which Marshall called an “inaccurate and blatant attempt to work around the City’s stated requirements for enforcement.”
According to Marshall, a third-party auditor updated the method used to track shelter acceptance after they argued that it was flawed. Marshall stated the change revealed that, in reality, few individuals refused shelter.
Sam Dodge, the present Director of Healthy Streets Operations Center and a defendant in the Coalition on Homelessness case, denied that the city had inflated the number of shelter refusals in an interview with Mission Local.
“Our whole goal for those of us who work in this realm is to help people in an extremely desperate situation,” Dodge said. He said that the tools used to track who was accepting shelter were created collaboratively and with best practices in mind.
Marshall “did not work in this field for very long,” Dodge said. “They moved from Portland, and then were here, and were gone pretty quick.”
The lawsuit uses a data analysis from Chris Herring, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, to buttress its claims that encampment sweeps occurred while there were not enough beds available for all impacted unhoused people. The analysis relies on the city’s own reports of scheduled sweeps and its available shelter beds. It concluded that “institutional pressures and limited shelter availability can cause workers on the ground to fabricate compliance,” effectively over-reporting the number of people who reject shelter.
Former Public Works staff Andrinna Malone also filed testimony on Friday. According to Malone, who worked at the department for 18 years, Public Works staff fail to post notices or warnings before workers come to clear encampments on a “daily basis.” The city has previously stated that it warns unhoused individuals before it clears an encampment.
The few instances where the department would post a sign was when “there was a lot going on — like media coverage or other political pressure,” Malone stated.
When Public Works crews remove an encampment, staff are supposed to collect and log unhoused residents’ belongings to be retrieved later, known as “bagging and tagging.” Instead, Malone said, Public Works often threw away residents’ items altogether, due to a lack of time to sort out trash from belongings.
“I have seen DPW workers throw away entire tents,” Malone stated.
Malone refused to throw away items, and would “bag and tag” them for later retrieval. She believed her actions and her dissent got her removed from the street-cleaning teams and put on graffiti cleanup duty instead.
“You’re a little too compassionate,” one manager allegedly told Malone, to explain her dismissal from the team. “We’re at war with the homeless right now.”
Both Marshall and Malone stated that San Francisco’s approach to homelessness caused them trauma.
Jennifer Freidenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that “it is a huge deal that we now have two former city employees that are confirming what the unhoused people have been saying all along. It demonstrates a widespread practice of property confiscation.“
“The city cannot say these are one-off instances from city employees,” said Freidenbach.
“San Francisco aims to provide permanent, secure housing to all who need it,” wrote Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office. “We look forward to discussing with the Court the City’s services-first approach and the significant investments the City has made to address our homelessness crisis.”
The Mayor’s Office and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit. Kositsky also declined to comment.