A group of people cleaning the street
A joint field operation on Alameda Street near Harrison. Photo by Yujie Zhou. Taken Jan. 5, 2023.

Last spring, Andrew Howard endured three sweeps in four weeks — the worst stretch he’s ever experienced in his three years of being homeless. Not only did the city workers throw his possessions into a garbage truck, during the sweep they disposed of the cremated remains of his loved ones. “That’s when I came unglued,” he said. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”

His experience came to the attention of local lawyers, who suggested the idea of a lawsuit against the city. It worked. By the fall, Howard had won the suit, and the $3,740 he received helped him get off the street. He moved into a hotel, and later became a volunteer who helped more homeless residents who had experienced similar treatment.

Others followed in a slew of cases as the Coalition on Homelessness has, for the first time, organized a successful effort to file property claims against the city. To date, 20 cases have been filed in small claims court, eight of which have been heard, with judges awarding compensation between $3,740 and $10,000.

Tori Larson, a staff attorney with the Homeless Advocacy Clinic at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, first suggested the idea to the Coalition on Homelessness. She saw it as a way to use an organized approach to a widespread legal problem of goods being confiscated. 

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t really been a centralized process or a centralized organization doing the work for decades” anywhere in the country, said Larson. Now there is.

As intuitive as these lawsuits might seem, for years no one had attempted them on a large scale, because legal services for the homeless were underfunded, or the small claims court cases were too petty to be taken seriously, Larson said. She and others saw something else: A legal standard clearly met. 

“The city is behaving unlawfully when they take people’s property in the manner that they do,” said Larson. “People have the right to their property.”

In theory, San Francisco has a bag-and-tag policy for storing homeless people’s belongings safely, labeling them, and providing receipts so the affected person to reclaim them. But, according to Larson, the government does not always follow them meticulously. This is where an organized legal action can make a difference. 

“It’s really, really hard for unhoused people to navigate the legal system,” said Ian James, an organizing director at the Coalition. He runs a clinical program with volunteers like Howard to help homeless people claim reparations from the city. James said that since last, over 200 people have begun preparations for an initial administrative claim. So far, eight have gone to court. 

One of the biggest obstacles, James said, is that the homeless resident can lose contact with James and his team during the filing process.

“You’re homeless already, you’re not feeling too good about yourself. You’re really living against the odds. You’re out there, and it’s not a safe environment,” said Howard. “Everything you have is gone and just crushed into a garbage truck, whether you’re there or not.”

In a recently filed case, a homeless resident wrote, “I came back to everything I owned gone. I was totally distraught and confused. This sweep left me totally devastated … Where can I go from here? They even took our clothes. I didn’t know where to go or who to call. It’s not like when you’re towed, there’s not even a number to call. I come home and there’s absolutely nothing.”

A partial injunction granted last December by U.S. District Court Judge Donna Ryu limits the sweeping of homeless encampments off the streets of San Francisco. After that ruling, James noted that the city offered to settle for the full amount in most of the next several cases before the hearing even started. The plaintiffs received $10,000, the maximum amount offered by the small claims court for such cases.

Homeless advocates, however, say that the conditions at the street level have not improved. “They actually increased the sweeps, and they went out and got a bucket loader. So now they’re just scooping the tents up and dumping them in the trash,” said Howard.

Larson, whose law practice is based in Sacramento, echoed part of this complaint. “The city did not stop doing the sweeps after the injunction was granted against them. It’s a callous disregard for the law,” she said.

Currently, documentation needed to file a lawsuit against the city includes a list of items taken and the prices to repurchase, preferably with photos or other proof. Pictures taken during the sweep will strengthen the claim if lack of advance notice or a failure of workers to properly wrap and tag items can be proved.

“Then there’s the other side of it, the mental side of it,” said Howard. “Because the mental anguish and the mental stress that you go through every time that you’re uprooted and your stuff is thrown away is really crazy. You just can’t really put a value on that, because it’s devastating to people.”

In theory, unhoused persons who have experienced many rounds of sweeps can file multiple claims, as long as the sweeps occurred within a certain time frame, Larson said. 

Larson is not worried about homeless residents taking advantage of the system. “There’s no more risk to somebody filing a false claim through this process than there would be to somebody filing a frivolous lawsuit in any other area.”

James believes the program is now in an initial phase and the filings are only limited by their legal capacity. “We have at least dozens more coming up.”

For James, this is the first stage of something larger: “It’s like enabling people to get justice through the legal system who otherwise wouldn’t have that. I think it’s really, really empowering.”

Follow Us

REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

Join the Conversation


Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. It impossible to be homeless in SF and maintain some sanity without a job. A way to transport what you own. Why do people still come to SF to be homeless?

  2. Anyone who has had to live around homeless encampments knows how bad it is. I’ve had to routinely deal with people smoking meth and fentanyl in broad daylight. People’s behaviors become VERY erratic and unpredictable. It’s very common to see people shooting up on heroin, casually discarding needles around our public spaces, vomiting (due to heroin reaction) and passing out from overdosing. Many days I walk around rigid bodies and am not sure if they are alive or dead. Not to mention the feces and urine that is smeared up and down our block. Let’s also acknowledge that much of the goods that are confiscated during the sweeps are stolen goods. These are realities that articles like this willfully overlook because it doesn’t fit the social justice narrative.
    People who talk about compassion and empathy are usually detached from the day to day, on the ground situation. They don’t have to experience the squalor and degeneracy at their front door. So, it’s convenient for them to virtue signal from afar.

  3. This is bizarre. As a newcomer to sf, and the USA, I don’t understand why people are allowed to camp on public pavements.

    It’s in unhygienic and unsafe.. And then they leave these filthy tents unattended, but expect the belongings to remain there?

    Why are they allowed to block common areas? If they wish to safeguard their foods they should move into a shelter. Anything left out is rubbish and should be disposed of. It attracts rodents and such.

    1. The city of San Francisco does not own or run any shelters At All. The shelter system we have is non profits and churches that let people come in at 6pm and leave at 7am that’s why people prefer tents. It’s permanent. We’re all feed up with the City of San Francisco & City Hall

    1. If it is small claims, the lawyer cut should be zero bc lawyers are prohibited from representing parties in small claims actions.

  4. “Homeless advocates” are vampires sucking the lifeblood of the city.

    We should be encouraging people to move into shelters or, ideally, go somewhere where housing is cheaper. Every visitor to SF mentions the homeless situation here. It’s a blight.

    Now we’re paying them off with $10,000? That’s just going to bring more, when we need less. We need to run the city with the goal of having fewer homeless people, not wealthier homeless people.

    1. You do not move into a shelter, you can only sleep there and many restrict what you can bring in for the night. Even if every un-housed person agreed to that, there are not enough beds to have them all sleep there.

      The amount of hate and ignorance of this problem is insane

  5. DPW have a history of taking items they want to keep or sell at the flea market in the East Bay. In my case the crew lead incriminated himself on his own cell phone when he shot video and then shared it with someone who happened to chat him up. Then it was shared with me. It wasn’t easy holding on to my mom’s wedding kimono and to this day no trace of its disposition has emerged. It must’ve fetched a high dollar amount for Robert.

    PS I’m sorry about the bike and tools but these creeps victimized us just as much. Once I had to run all the way to church station to use the payphone on the platform because my friend was having a bad seizure during his chemotherapy on the sidewalk in front of the library, and needed to go to Davies.

  6. I was wondering how a loved one could file a claim! Some homeless just want to be left alone that’s why they pitch tents in alot of areas general public don’t use or have access to, it a huge mess but the way the city has been going about it is WRONG and CRUEL. Imagine the belongings u love enough to keep, having very limited space…..Thrown away cuz it was in your tent imagine not even getting a warning or anything coming back to your “home” or ur place of peace, ur privacy, and it’s gone and everything inside it is too!!!!! Not even a note. And people wonder why people run around the city and take everything and anything they want, I don’t blame them at all, what they got left????

  7. I found my stolen bike in that exact spot, and it was among the “belongings” of a guy who lived there until I showed up with a police report and a nice officer. I also had some tools stolen that night but didn’t recover those belongings.

  8. SF should cut out the cruelty, repeal Care Not Cash, and address poverty through substantial direct cash transfers. That’ll be less expensive overall.

    1. Agreed.
      The transfer of hundreds of millions to the ever growing multitudes of non-profits feeding off the system has been a poor investment.
      We’ve all seen the insane dollar figures of what The City spends annually per homeless person.

      Just give ’em even half the dough – which is a big chunk.
      Some will party it up.
      Many will get a leg up on getting it going.
      We’ll just take a loss on the party people – lot less than we’re losing now, betcha.