Advocates say resumption of 'poverty tows' in San Francisco unfairly targets unhoused

Protesters gathered outside San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency headquarters on Wednesday, upset that San Francisco will soon resume towing cars with unpaid parking tickets, a practice they say unfairly targets the homeless.

"Shame! Shame! Shame!" They chanted outside the agency's building near S. Van Ness Avenue and Market Street.

"We're here today to tell the MTA to stop towing people's homes. Stop poverty tows!" said Carlos Wadkins of the Coalition on Homelessness. 

Protesters say the city had suspended these types of tows during the pandemic but will once again tow cars with five or more unpaid tickets on June 21.

"They have no place to live but their vehicles," Wadkins said. "They have no place to park those vehicles. But the SFMTA is giving them tickets and towing their homes away and stealing their belongings."

Javier Bremond of Community Housing Partnership agreed, saying, "The city's decision to resume poverty tows is shameful. And it acts as a barrier for low-income communities of color to get back on their feet during shelter-in-place."

City officials say they are sympathetic to those who have to sleep in their cars but that all people are responsible for paying outstanding parking tickets.

The city says there are payment alternatives for those who can't afford tickets and that just letting them pile up isn't an option.

In a statement, the San Francisco city attorney's office said in part, "Homelessness is a difficult issue that the city works tirelessly to address every day.  At the same time, homeless or not, if you have a car and park it on city streets, you have to park it legally.  The same rules apply to everyone."

But Tori Larson an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco said, "These aren't for the health and safety of the community. These are for debt collection. These are non-essential to the functioning of the city."

Larson is one of the attorneys representing the Coalition on Homelessness, which has a pending suit against the city over the towing issue.

She says towing cars belonging to the homeless is a violation against Fourth Amendment, which bars unlawful seizure. She's seeking a court order barring the practice.

"We're not asking them to apply the law unequally. We're saying that nobody deserves to lose their vehicle for this reason, even if you're housed, even if you have the means," Larson said, adding, "It's too big of a punishment for a non-crime."