Updated June 9, 2023
Ten days after a federal injunction forbidding San Francisco from carrying out most sweeps of homeless encampments, the situation is mixed in the Mission: Some unhoused Mission residents say they have still been told to pack up and move, particularly before Carnaval; others say that sweeps have stopped and they have been left largely alone.
And still others say that, sweeps or not, city staff still come by to clean the sidewalks and confiscate their belongings, a practice specifically called out by the federal injunction against San Francisco.
“They take whatever, whether it’s trash or belongings, every time they make us move,” said E.J., who lives at an encampment on Harrison and 19th streets, on Monday.
E.J. and his friend Julian said that staff with the Department of Public Works told them to move on May 25, two days before Carnaval. When the city brought trucks to clear the area, they took some of E.J.’s things.
“DPW’s like a gang,” said Damon Sykes, who got housing a couple years ago after a long stint on the streets but was visiting E.J. and Julian on Monday. “They do whatever they want.”
A motion filed against the city and various agencies last week alleges that San Francisco has continued to criminalize unhoused residents through sweeps, citation threats and illegal seizure of personal property, despite a December injunction prohibiting actions that plaintiffs say cause “ongoing, irreparable harm.”
The motion, filed May 25, requests measures from the city to guarantee adherence to the original injunction, which plaintiffs say the city has violated repeatedly. Witness statements from 25 homeless residents and advocates confirm ongoing sweeps.
U.S. District Court Judge Donna M. Ryu granted an injunction on Dec. 23, 2022, barring sweeps and activities like seizing property.
Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu, said they are reviewing the motion and plan to respond at the Aug. 18 hearing. “The City is working to ensure San Francisco’s streets are clean, safe, and provide a sufficient path of travel for all,” wrote Kwart in an email. “We are reviewing the motion and will respond to specific points in court.”
“It’s not illegal to exist,” said John Do, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Multiple times a day, people are dispatched to respond to calls of the mere existence of an unhoused person.”
Mission District: 10,000 calls in a month
In the last month, more than 10,000 311 complaints about encampments have come from the Mission. The emails and calls received by Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office prompted her to create a public report that “tracks progress in addressing homelessness and street conditions in District 9.”
Using data from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Healthy Streets Operation Center, Ronen provides a weekly tally of homeless people contacted and/or placed in a shelter.
According to the tracker, between May 15 and May 21, agencies reached out to 31 homeless residents, and 10 were placed in shelters (it is unclear what kind of shelters).
On the morning of May 25, the same day the motion to enforce was filed, Amadis Velez, who lives with his son in an apartment at 19th and Bryant streets, found an encampment had been swept from Harrison Street and relocated in front of his home.
Velez, a teacher at Mission High, was concerned about visible drug use so close to his 11-year-old child.
Velez went downstairs and spoke in Spanish with a man at the camp. “They were told by SFPD to move two blocks,” he said. “The person I spoke to was also a teacher in his country,” said Velez.
“He told me, ‘We’re in transition, we’ll move on.’” When he checked back that afternoon, the encampment had gone.
Though a homeless sweep brought his worries right to his doorstep, Velez disagreed with Judge Ryu’s injunction. “Sometimes, the camps can get out of hand,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, a group of nuns from Queen of Peace Missionary Church on Folsom handed out hot meals to residents on an encampment on 19th Street. Robert Kelly, a worker with the church, who was homeless a few years ago, said the missionaries usually would distribute food to the encampments dotting Harrison and Folsom Streets.
“But, since Carnaval, everybody’s gone from there. They move them for holidays.”
Lawsuit alleges Constitutional violations
The injunction and motion to enforce are part of an ongoing lawsuit against the city brought by the Coalition on Homelessness and seven homeless residents, alleging that current policies targeting homeless residents violate constitutional rights.
In last week’s motion, which will be heard Aug. 10, plaintiffs are once more asking for a special master to monitor the city’s compliance with the injunction, as well as regular reports on police and other agency responses to 311 and 911 calls about homeless people.
The special master and regular reports were first granted by Judge Ryu in the December injunction. But, according to Do, reports never materialized.
Do said that in the original injunction, plaintiffs explicitly stated they want to know exactly what happens when an officer or worker is dispatched to deal with a 311 complaint.
Public data shows that, in the last three months, 311 logged 353 homelessness complaints that were marked closed with the note “encampment able to remain, due to Judge Ryu.” But, in the last week alone, there were 813 complaints about encampments filed — many closed without much explanation.
Many of the statements recount alarming experiences in shelters; several of the homeless residents allege they were threatened with fines if they did not move. A majority lost property they considered necessities. All witnesses experienced sweeps without notice. Each of these actions violated the December injunction, according to the motion filed last week.
“We want them to respect property rights of unhoused people just like they would anyone of higher means,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
In the last five months, said Friedenbach, “we’ve gotten reports they’ve taken medication and survival gear and, in one case, someone’s ashes.”
In a row of tents by Best Buy on Division Street, two friends born and raised in the Fillmore shared a tent and a small supply of bikes to sell. Nobody’s asked them to move in a while, said one, a man named Kahlua.
But, almost every week, Public Works comes by and asks them to move, and hoses down the sidewalk. In the process of clearing, they’ll sometimes take personal belongings.
“What you hear about DPW — it’s all true. They come by and take our shit. I’m not saying they’re all bad, some of them are good.”
“Last week, SFPD came by and told us if I didn’t cooperate they would send us to jail,” said Kahlua. “I had 12 bikes. They said you weren’t supposed to have more than three. I buy or barter for bikes, fix ‘em up, and sell ‘em, and I told them this. But they went and took nine of my bikes.”
In the Mission, injunction has effects
Santiago Lerma, Ronen’s aide and 2024 District 9 supervisor hopeful, said for his part that he “hopes something positive” comes out of the federal injunction, and that the supervisor’s office will continue to call in agencies to enforce laws against encampments where “bad behavior” is reported.
According to Lerma, the encampment Velez had an issue with, at 19th and Bryant streets, was indeed originally on Harrison, and he’d had it moved, explaining that the “ringleader” was operating a chop shop.
Because the chop shop violated a policy not embargoed by the injunction, Article 20, he said, he asked city agencies to take it down.
On one occasion when Lerma visited the encampment, which he said housed three to five Spanish speakers, Lerma was accompanied by Mission Station Captain Thomas Harvey, who recognized one resident from 10 years ago.
“We asked him why he was here,” said Lerma. “He said his mom lived around the block. He felt safe there; he wanted to be near his family.”
Lerma said the Mission can already feel the impacts of the injunction on sweeps. But he’s hopeful. “There’s more ways to approach the encampments. They’re not all the same.”
Jake Pearson, a senior who’s been part of a cluster of tents at Hampshire and 17th streets since January, said they don’t get asked to move, except every so often across the street for Public Works cleaning.
The city offers services, said Pearson, but only selectively: “They come and don’t offer to most.” He pointed around to other tents. “They’ll pass all those people and just come talk to me, because I’m a senior and they say it’s a priority. But who is that helping?”
“They come, they don’t tell us to move, they don’t say to move, but they’re relaying the message — they want us off their street.”