Working Together Toward Ending Street Homelessness and Tackling the City’s Affordable Housing Crisis

PC: Neerav Bhatt – Via Flickr

By the Vanguard

“All San Francisco residents, no matter their housing status, deserve to live in a city without street homelessness. Residents are rightly frustrated that the City has failed time and again to address its housing affordability crisis—with inhumane consequences for conditions on our streets,” a letter read.

The Coalition on Homelessness wrote to invite the city attorney, mayor and other stakeholders to meet and reach a settlement on litigation that aims to bring real solutions to the homeless and affordability crisis.

On Thursday, the ACLU of Northern California; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF); Law Enforcement Action Partnership; National Police Accountability Project; Western Center on Law and Poverty; Disability Rights California; and the San Francisco Public Defenders’ Office sent a letter to San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu, inviting him to settlement discussions in the lawsuit against the City’s approach to managing street homelessness.

The letter includes specific settlement terms that could be acceptable to the plaintiffs, the Coalition on Homelessness, and individuals who have been adversely affected by the City’s ineffective management of the homelessness crisis.

“We invite City leaders to meet us on the substantial common ground we all share,” said Zal K. Shroff, Acting Legal Director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “No one, including our clients, believes the City should embrace street homelessness and turn a blind eye to the conditions on the street. We’re looking for real, commonsense solutions in partnership with the City.”

The letter outlines proposed settlement terms that fall into three categories: first, ensuring San Francisco prioritizes the rapid development of affordable housing and expanding access to temporary shelter; second, creating a new framework for the City’s response to street encampments; and third, ongoing monitoring of the City’s actions to ensure it follows through.

LCCRSF, ACLU NorCal, and Latham & Watkins LLP represent the Coalition on Homelessness in its lawsuit against San Francisco. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found in favor of the plaintiffs in the underlying lawsuit filed last year, in which they argued San Francisco has a pattern of forcibly displacing unhoused individuals and destroying their belongings, without providing shelter or affordable housing as required by the Constitution and human decency.

In December, the court issued a narrow injunction against San Francisco which prevents the City from enforcing certain anti-homeless laws and orders the City to follow its own policies on property confiscation. The central issue at hand is that San Francisco does not meaningfully offer shelter and services to people living on the streets and instead threatens them with citation and arrest. A recent report released by San Francisco’s Office of the Controller documented that San Francisco only has 52 shelter beds available for every 100 people living on the street.

The City is decades behind on meeting its state-mandated affordable housing targets and tens of thousands of units behind on meeting state housing production goals.

“At its heart, San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is an affordable housing crisis,” said Cynthia Castillo, Policy Advocate of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Instead of ensuring that Californians without housing have universal access to a safe, permanent, and affordable place to live, harassment tactics continue to displace and segregate unhoused people. The City’s homelessness problem will never be solved until there is an affordable place for people to live.”

Currently more than 4,000 people are forced to sleep on San Francisco’s streets every night, while temporary shelter beds are at functional capacity every day of the year. The new shelter waitlist system is already hundreds of people deep. More than 800 permanent supportive housing units specifically designed for unhoused people sit vacant. Millions of designated funds remain unspent. These are bureaucratic failures and the immediate solutions are clear. For example, available Prop C funds must be spent immediately to rehabilitate empty units that do not meet health and safety standards. The City has already identified deficiencies in its system designed to match homeless individuals with available housing; it must now fix those shortcomings as quickly as possible.

City Attorney David Chiu and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have aggressively fought the terms of the court’s December injunction, repeatedly blaming the injunction for San Francisco’s inability to develop a humane, effective, and efficient response to the ongoing homelessness and affordable housing crisis.

But the court injunction allows for bona fide street cleaning and ensuring disability access. The order does not prevent the City from enforcing other laws. All the injunction prevents is the policing, forced displacement, and destruction of unhoused people’s survival belongings just because they have nowhere else to turn.

“Given recent Ninth Circuit case law, San Francisco should face the facts: the plaintiffs are in an extraordinarily strong legal position,” said Lauren Bonds, Executive Director of National Police Accountability Project. “We applaud this effort to move beyond fighting in court toward a holistic solution to address the root causes of homelessness.”

“People forced to live on the streets need compassion, services and shelter,” added Lieutenant Diane Goldstein (Ret.), Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “As an organization of and by law enforcement, we understand the profound costs of being called to police unhoused people whose only crime is existing. This costly use of law enforcement resources does not solve homelessness, takes us away from doing our jobs, and only promotes distrust from the community, which undermines public safety. City leaders should realign their resources to get at root causes to break the cycle that keeps so many people sleeping outdoors.”

San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is also a racial justice issue. Due to a shameful legacy of housing discrimination and anti-Black racism, nearly 40% of unhoused people in the City are Black, although Black people make up less than six percent of its population.

“We invite City Attorney Chiu to schedule a meeting with our team to discuss collaborative next steps in this litigation,” concluded John Do, Senior Staff Attorney at ACLU Northern California. “It’s time to find a more productive way forward, for the good of all San Franciscans.”

The next district court hearing in this case is scheduled for August 24. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear an appeal on the preliminary injunction on August 23.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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