San Francisco can enforce laws on homeless who refuse shelter services

San Francisco can again enforce laws around the removal of homeless encampments following a recent clarification from a federal court that stems from a lawsuit over the treatment of unhoused residents on city streets.

The injunction against the City limited city workers from enforcing a number of laws against sitting, lying, or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks for people who are "involuntarily homeless."

The court clarified what "involuntary" means, specifying the city can enforce the laws against people who are choosing to stay on the streets and declining shelter services. The San Francisco Chronicle was the first to report that the Ninth Circuit of U.S. Appeals clarified that unhoused residents who refuse shelter services cannot camp out on city streets. 

City Attorney David Chiu said over half of those being offered services are declining. 

"After months of confusion, the Court has acknowledged that individuals are not involuntarily homeless if they have declined a specific offer of available shelter or otherwise have access to such shelter or the means to obtain it," said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. "Our City workers have been doing the best job they can in carrying out encampment resolutions under the injunction, and they are now getting prepared to enforce these laws in light of this recent clarification by the Ninth Circuit."

This court guidance is related to a high-profile legal battle over homeless encampment sweeps. In September 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit alleging that the city violates state and federal laws when clearing homeless encampments and seizing belongings despite offering shelter to unhoused residents.

In December, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a temporary injunction preventing San Francisco from clearing encampments unless the city could provide housing to those unhoused residents. Ryu ruled that city sweeps against those who are "involuntarily homeless" was "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Under the injunction, the city could only clear streets with 72 hours notice for emergencies or disability rights compliance. The city could also conduct sweeps for health and safety reasons.

"It’s made it very challenging for us to move forward with a compassion-based approach to services and shelter while also being able to maintain safe and clean streets," said City Attorney David Chiu.

Chiu had argued for months that there was confusion and debate about who is considered involuntarily homeless. This month, the Ninth Circuit of U.S. Appeals clarified that individuals are not involuntarily homeless if they have declined a specific offer of available shelter or have access to such shelter or the means to obtain it.

This development paves the way for the city to resume clearing some homeless encampments, although the temporary injunction remains in place.

City officials are hoping this clarification from the courts helps them clear dangerous sidewalks filled with open drug use. 

"It’s hard to ignore because it’s right under your nose. Everywhere you go, you see somebody hitting foil. Everywhere you go, you see a hand-off," said Jalen Tillis, a formerly homeless man who recently received housing through the City's Youth Services.

The mayor’s blog post on Medium said "the plaintiffs in the case will continue to interfere with their work," accusing activists of handing out tents to keep people on the street. 

Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness denied the accusation. "We’re not fighting to keep people on the streets, we’re fighting to keep people off the streets," she said.

"Regardless of what happens with the Ninth Circuit, it’s possible these issues will continue for at least the next year and beyond," said Chiu.

Chiu said the injunction will remain in place until there’s more shelter beds than there are people needing shelter, and there are a fluctuting 7,700 people are sleeping on San Francisco streets every night.

The city provides 15,000 permanent supporting housing beds, but there is not have enough temporary housing, according to Chiu.

"We have thousands of temporary housing units, but we do not enough temporary housing for everyone that’s currently unhoused on our streets," said Chiu. 

Despite the injunction, city workers and street teams continue offering resources to the homeless. The city can temporarily clear tents and encampments during street cleaning, but the homeless have been allowed to return. As a result, officials are seeing a 10% increase in shelter placements this year.

While the courts provided clarification on the term "involuntary," Chiu said there is still a question of whether police officers can be present to clear encampments, as the Coalition on Homelessness want to eliminate police presence from street teams unless they are called. 

"We need to ensure the safety of our public city workers as well as residents and businesses in the area," said Chiu.

"[The Coalition on Homelessness] wants to see a response that moves it out of the criminal justice system and is really a health-focused response," said Friedenbach. 

"This lawsuit is still pending. The injunction is still in place. Our City Attorney is continuing to fight this in court. So nothing is over and things can change again. But this clarity from the Ninth Circuit is a step in the right direction," the mayor said.

The city reported that it has expanded shelter capacity by 50% since 2018 and has assisted 10,000 people in exiting homelessness during that time. At last check, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing's Adult Shelter Reservation Waitlist has 399 people waiting for a space. 

Breed noted that the city will gradually implement changes and provide training to city workers in line with the existing federal injunction and the recent clarification.

Chiu told KTVU the City is still determining how operations will change.