By Patty Yao
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – On Sept. 27, 2022, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil rights of the SF Bay Area filed a lawsuit against the city of SF on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness and 7 unhoused and/or housing insecure plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s police sweeps of homeless encampments violate 3 US Constitutional amendments and seeks to stop the city’s practices and divert money from police enforcement of encampments to the provision of affordable housing.
The lawsuit alleges that the city’s “bag and tag” policy, which allows city workers to remove unattended and attended personal items on the streets for later collection, violates the 4th Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures). Although the policy requires the provision of a 72-hour notice prior to any removals, many unhoused people and community advocates have reported that the city often fails to provide written or verbal notice. In addition, despite the policy’s retrieval aspect, the Coalition on Homelessness has reported many people losing their IDs, medications, phones, and other items they need to survive. Advocates have reported multiple instances where city workers discard items before they are ever cataloged.
The lawsuit also notes the dangers to the mental and physical health of unhoused people whose items are seized and/or destroyed, alleging that “the city is exposing unhoused residents to imminent and grave harms in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” In addition, the suit alleges that the inadequate prior notice of any removals is a violation of the “due process safeguards” provided by the 14th Amendment.
The plaintiffs also allege that the citations against and arrests of homeless people sleeping in public while there is a lack of available shelters are a violation of the 8th Amendment (protection against cruel and unusual punishment). These citations and arrests are also alleged violations of Martin v. Boise, a California Supreme Court case that made it illegal to enforce bans on sleeping in public places if there is a lack of adequate shelter nearby. The lawsuit states, “The city is punishing residents who have nowhere to go.”
In an interview with the Vanguard at Berkeley, Doctor Colette Auerswald, MD—a Berkeley professor in the School of Public Health who specializes in studying youth experiencing homelessness—comments on the mental and physical harms of encampment sweeps. She notes that ongoing research has shown so far that “encampment sweeps are actually very dangerous for people experiencing homelessness.
“One of the things they need is to have a safe, stable, place to stay. You can’t say that people should be living in encampments, but at the same time, if you’re in an encampment, that’s the closest thing you have to that safe, stable, place to stay. For some people, encampments are where they have a community. Being in an encampment can meet multiple basic needs: the need for shelter, community, and social support, safety, etc. When you take those things away from people, it’s harmful to both their physical and mental health.”
In terms of mental harm, Dr. Auerswald explains that sweeps can “cause chronic stress to the body” and “worsen mental health status or trigger a new diagnosis (such as severe depression, anxiety, PTSD)” for those who already have underlying stressors. In terms of physical harm, she explains that the sweeps “put people at visible risk, not only of exposure but of a lack of safety” and make it even harder for people to sleep, which increases the likelihood “that they will either develop a chronic illness or worsen an existing chronic illness, especially if they need medications or other aids such as wheelchairs and braces that might have been taken away in a sweep.”
When asked about the city’s enforcement operations, Dr. Auerswald comments on the ongoing criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, stating “the city is saying that they don’t have enough shelter for everyone, but everyone who’s still left on the street is still getting criminalized when the city knows full well that the reason they’re there is that the city doesn’t provide enough resources. Yet people are continuing to be criminalized and that’s getting worse.”
She also talks about the city’s general response to homelessness in the last few years, saying “in the last couple of years there have been improvements. During Covid, there were rooms made available through Project Roomkey, and that was really good. That said, there should’ve been more, and there should’ve been more a lot sooner, and it shouldn’t have been taken away as early as it was.
“The fact is that people were out there and feeling unsafe, or they were in crowded shelters and feeling unsafe, and they were saying: we want something safer. But the city’s response was: we don’t wanna give it to you because we don’t wanna keep giving it to you or you don’t want it because when we offer it to you you turn it down, which is generally untrue. The city was also renting hundreds of rooms that they kept empty, and that’s horrific.”
One of the most criticized components of the city’s response to homelessness is the Healthy Street Operation Center (HSOC), a homelessness response task force that performs tent sweeps. The organization has a stated mission to “ensure that no San Franciscan is left to sleep on the street, and our streets are safe for everyone.” However, a recent report by the Coalition on Homelessness details many failures of HSOC, stating that it “connects only 30% of unhoused individuals it encounters with shelter and none to permanent housing” and that it fails to make available “adequate and appropriate resources” which includes shelter beds for those impacted by sweeps. The organization has reportedly categorized those who were turned away due to a lack of shelter beds under “declining services.”
The lawsuit characterizes HSOC as being under a “guise of a services-first response to the City’s homelessness crisis” when it is an “interagency operation” for the city to “pour money into law enforcement operations so that the City can clear evidence of homelessness from City streets.”
An emergency hearing for the lawsuit is expected within the next months that could potentially stop parts of the city’s sweeps until its resolution. The lawsuit itself is expected to continue for several years.
Murong (Patty) Yao is a current fourth year at UC Berkeley majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Public Policy. This is her second semester at the Vanguard at Berkeley, and she’s a writer for the prison reform desk. She’s from Allentown Pennsylvania.