9th Circuit: San Francisco gains more authority to clear homeless encampments

San Francisco now has more legal authority to clear away homeless encampments after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday threw out part of a court order limiting when and how the city could cite people for sleeping on the streets.

Six years ago, Ashley Jones was one of those people living on the streets of San Francisco.

"I didn't think I was going to make it, living in parks, here and there," Jones said.

He says he was able to get into a shelter program and get back on his feet. He now lives in his own apartment. But he understands why some people refuse an offer to stay in a shelter.

"Most people are not going to go," Jones said. "The shelters have 300 people in them. You're in 3x5 cots, kinda like summer camp, but it's not summer camp. You have to fingerprint, get your photo taken. It's hard to be on a lights-out-10-to-6 schedule."

Recent court rulings will make it more difficult for unhoused people to refuse shelter beds or camp on city streets. Yesterday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted what had been a temporary ban in San Francisco on widespread sweeps of homeless encampments.

It comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last month that it is constitutional for cities to cite and even arrest people for sleeping in public spaces.

"Cities will end up being a bit more aggressive because voters complain about this," said David Levine, a UC College of Law professor.

When asked how aggressive their homeless camp policies will become, San Francisco Mayor London Breed's office didn't share specifics. But in a statement, they said: "Conversations with the City Attorney are underway to inform our next steps, including how policies and procedures are updated."

"I think we will see more crackdowns without having to spend the money to provide services, like shelter," Levine said.

The statement from the mayor's office goes on to say the city will still offer shelter beds for people it moves off the street. However, it adds, "We cannot allow for people to refuse services and shelter when offered and available."

Even so, the 9th Circuit order yesterday ruled that San Francisco is still under court order not to throw people's belongings away, stemming from a lawsuit the Coalition on Homelessness filed against the city.

"San Francisco cannot just destroy those belongings and put them in the trash. They need to bag and tag it, so they can retrieve it," said John Do, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "San Francisco has a track record of throwing away things that have ranged from medical equipment to their prosthetics. Medications, their IDs, personal belongings."

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, at least part of that lawsuit from the Coalition on Homelessness still stands. Next month, attorneys from both sides will be back in federal court to figure out what will happen next with that lawsuit.