San Francisco engages thousands of unhoused people in encampments each year by offering shelter and services. The City has made substantial investments in taking a compassionate services-first approach and providing permanent supportive housing, shelter, and services to people experiencing homelessness.
We are doing the work and continuing to house and shelter people every day.
- San Francisco has more permanent supportive housing per capita than any other city in the country besides Washington DC, and over the last 5 years, has provided more permanent supporting housing of any county in the Bay Area by far.
- We’ve expanded shelter by 50% since 2018 and we’ve helped 10,000 people exit homelessness in that time.
- San Francisco was one of the few cities in California that saw a reduction in homelessness between 2019 and 2022, with a 15% reduction in unsheltered homelessness.
But despite all of this work, some have attacked us and sued us over our homelessness policies.
This obstruction has not helped get more people into housing or shelter. It’s only left more people on our streets who we want to help get indoors. And it’s created the opportunity for those who want to use tents and encampments not primarily for housing but to conduct illegal behavior like drug dealing, human trafficking, and theft.
Here’s the good news: our City Attorney’s Office has fought for and received clarification that will allow us to resume enforcement of laws that we’ve been limited from enforcing for the last nine months.
Here’s an update on what’s happening and our next steps.
Ninth Circuit Clarifies Disputed Term
During encampment resolutions, the City cleans and secures streets and public spaces, while also offering services and shelter to unhoused individuals. In September 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the City regarding the City’s practices related to homeless encampment resolutions.
As a part of that lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction, which is a type of temporary court order that courts sometimes put in place while a lawsuit is being litigated.
That injunction was granted and we’ve been limited throughout this entire year from enforcing a number of laws against sitting, lying, or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks for people who are “involuntarily homeless.” This term and who it applies to has been the subject of debate and court appeals over the last several months, and the Court’s lack of clarity and definition has limited the City from enforcing those laws.
Finally, in September 2023, the City received clarification on the definition of this term from the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Specifically, the Court 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.
This clarification is consistent with what the City has argued in court. While the injunction remains in place, we now have a path forward to enforce these laws against voluntarily homeless individuals, as we previously had in the past.
The fact that it took us nearly nine months to get this clarification is frustrating. But we have to focus on moving forward.
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. These are people with some of the most challenging jobs in the city, and they do their work with respect, compassion, and diligence.
To make sure our workers are supported and confident in their work with this change, over the next few weeks we will be reiterating and updating their training and making sure they understand what they can and cannot do in line with the injunction and Ninth Circuit’s recent clarification.
This interim step is necessary not only so they understand what has changed, but also because, unfortunately, the plaintiffs in this case will still be out interfering with their work. They will film our city workers. They will try to tell our workers what they can and cannot do. These activists are the same people who hand out tents to keep people on the street instead of working to bring them indoors, as we are trying to do. And they are the same people instructing and encouraging people to refuse shelter — to remain on the street instead of going indoors. Their agenda is clear.
But our commitment to addressing what’s happening on our streets is equally clear.
- We will work to bring people indoors.
- We will continue to offer shelter and house people.
- We will enforce our laws when these offers are refused.
People who have been offered available shelter should not be allowed to remain out camping on our streets.
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. We will keep working to help get people off of our streets, into shelter, and on a path to stability, and keep our neighborhoods clean and safe for all.