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It was raining in San Francisco on Wednesday morning when volunteer Shanna Orona arrived at a homeless encampment on Erie Street surrounded by police vehicles.
As rain fell — the approach of the powerful “atmospheric river” that would slam California cities with heavy winds and flooding — city workers, including police and fire department personnel, cleared out the encampment so they could power-wash the street, Orona alleged in a court document.
The individuals at the encampment left without receiving “concrete” offers of shelter after a fire department commander threatened that police would arrive to conduct warrant checks and other city workers would throw away people’s belongings, said Orona, who volunteers with the Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco nonprofit. When one person from the encampment responded to the fire department commander in Spanish, the commander allegedly turned away, saying, “I don’t speak Mexican.”
The Jan. 4 sweep Orona witnessed was not only inhumane but also violated the orders of a California district court, attorneys representing the Coalition on Homelessness argued in court documents filed Thursday.
On Dec 23, the Coalition on Homelessness won a preliminary injunction in an ongoing court case against the city of San Francisco, successfully arguing that it was unconstitutional for the city to enforce certain laws penalizing unhoused individuals while the city lacks sufficient shelter space to house them. The court order forbids the city from enforcing various laws prohibiting “involuntarily homeless individuals” from sitting, lying or sleeping on public property.
But San Francisco isn’t listening, the coalition alleged last week.
The group filed statements from several staff members and volunteers, including Orona, who alleged that the city violated the injunction by conducting several sweeps of homeless encampments in late December and early January, even as the devastating storm neared.
“I was very taken back,” Orona told The Washington Post. “I was like, the city has a lot of nerves.”
A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office told The Post in a statement that the activities described by the coalition did not violate the injunction.
“The order prohibits the City from enforcing six specific laws to prevent involuntarily homeless individuals from sitting, lying, or sleeping on public property,” the city attorney’s office said in the statement. “The order does not prohibit the City from maintaining safe and healthy streets for all. The City may continue to ensure sidewalks are not obstructed, but are usable for everyone. And, the City may still ask unhoused people to move temporarily for cleaning activities.”
In court filings, attorneys for the coalition contested that characterization, alleging that individuals were still threatened with the confiscation of tents and other personal belongings, which the injunction forbids, and that city workers’ behavior — threatening warrant checks and “forcibly waking people up, standing over them, and yelling at them to move” — still constituted an enforcement threat. They also questioned why the city moved unhoused residents to power-wash a street during a storm.
The timing of the newest wave of sweeps, coming shortly after the injunction was issued and as a powerful storm prepared to batter the city, came as a shock to the coalition, executive director Jennifer Friedenbach told The Post.
“My experience is that the city kind of backs off on these things during bad weather,” Friedenbach said. “It was a bit shocking to see them continue these operations in the pouring down rain.”
John Do, an attorney representing the coalition, echoed Friedenbach’s concerns.
“Your survival gear, your personal belongings shouldn’t be taken by the city and thrown away,” Do said. “And certainly not in an atmospheric river. That is truly inhumane and cruel.”
As of Monday, 11.16 inches of rain had fallen on San Francisco in a 13-day stretch, the wettest spell since 1871. The city remains on flood watch, and residents have been advised to stay home.
Additional storms have been forecast in the coming week. In response to the weather, San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing opened four temporary shelters accepting walk-up referrals that will run until Jan. 15.
Strongest atmospheric river yet battering California with damaging floods
The allegations surrounding the pre-storm sweeps are the latest development in a months-long court case challenging San Francisco’s handling of a persistent homelessness crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. In September, the Coalition on Homelessness and seven unhoused individuals sued the city and county of San Francisco, Mayor London Breed and several city departments to stop the city from enforcing several laws that criminalize sitting, sleeping or lying on public property.
The coalition argued in a 100-page complaint that because San Francisco lacks enough shelter space to house the majority of the city’s unhoused population, sweeping encampments and displacing individuals under threat of arrest amounts to cruel and unusual punishment that violates people’s constitutional rights. The nonprofit also alleged that city workers routinely violated a “bag and tag” policy that is supposed to allow displaced individuals to retrieve belongings seized during encampment sweeps, saying workers repeatedly dispose of them instead.
In the complaint, Toro Castaño, a plaintiff with the coalition, called the city’s sweeps a “dehumanizing disruption to the small ounce of stability I was trying to build for myself during one of the hardest times of my life.”
As issued, the preliminary injunction remains effective for the duration of the case, as long as there are more homeless individuals in San Francisco than shelter beds available. San Francisco had a total capacity of 5,080 shelter beds in 2022, including around 2,000 temporary beds scheduled to be phased out by the end of that year, according to city statistics cited by the coalition, while 7,754 people were counted in the most recent survey of the city’s unhoused population.
The city filed a motion for clarification on the injunction last week, arguing that the restrictions within are unreasonable and contradicting an injunction in a separate case on homelessness that mandated the city remove unhoused individuals who’d refused offers of shelter in the city’s Tenderloin district.
“It defies logic to require that San Francisco have shelter for all persons experiencing homelessness before San Francisco may enforce these laws against any one person, even after that individual has refused adequate shelter,” the city attorney’s office told The Post. According to the city, providing the required shelter beds and services would take several years and cost an additional $1.45 billion.
In their recent filings, attorneys for the coalition asked the court to mandate the city provide additional information about sweeps and appoint a special master to monitor the city’s compliance with the preliminary injunction. The lawsuit broadly asks for the city to submit to greater oversight over sweeps and for the court to establish a similar, permanent injunction until all of San Francisco’s unhoused residents have access to shelter.
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, when a judge may address both the coalition’s allegations and the city’s motion for clarification.