Most staff have not received any real training on policies designed to protect the constitutional rights of unhoused residents.
Special to the Vanguard
San Francisco, CA – On Friday, attorneys representing the Coalition on Homelessness and a group of individuals suing San Francisco over its treatment of unhoused residents filed a brief with the US District Court for the Northern District of California drawing attention to San Francisco’s “woefully inadequate” training for staff who interact with unhoused individuals.
At an August 24 district court hearing, the court asked the City to identify how it has trained staff to ensure San Francisco is following a preliminary injunction that prevents the City from illegally destroying unhoused residents’ property. (See below for more information about the preliminary injunction.)
The district court issued a preliminary injunction in December 2022 to prevent San Francisco from arresting people simply for existing (including sitting and sleeping) in public when they have no reasonable access to shelter or housing.
The injunction also requires San Francisco to follow its own written policies that prohibit the City from destroying the property of unhoused people. The court’s order has never prohibited San Francisco from enforcing the majority of its laws related to public safety, including clearing sidewalks for public health or accessibility purposes or arresting individuals who have actually broken the law (such as public drug use, violence, or vandalism).
According to City records, its only formal training tool is a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that does not mention the court’s injunction or meaningfully explain the procedures the City must follow when handling unhoused residents’ belongings. The City has shown this presentation only three times, and produced no records of how many people ever saw it.
While the City claims it also conducts occasional informal trainings, it provided no evidence that these sessions included any instruction on a number of key issues, including: “how to give notice before and after a removal of property; circumstances in which personal items should be collected; what items must be collected and stored; what items can be discarded; distinguishing between unattended and abandoned property; or procedures for retrieval of property.” Sign-in sheets show that from November 2022 to August 2023 just 57 Department of Public Works employees out of 1,800 had attended a single one of these informal sessions.
“San Francisco has once again demonstrated that it has taken effectively no real steps to follow its own sound policies for how to address street homelessness,” said Zal K. Shroff, acting legal director, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “The City’s abject failure to adequately train its staff is making San Francisco’s homeless problem worse. It’s time for Mayor Breed and the City to get serious about complying with the court’s order.”
Meanwhile, the district court has noted instances of non-compliance with the injunction, meaning that San Francisco public works staff continue to seize and destroy people’s survival equipment, work equipment, and sentimental belongings, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. These property destruction campaigns make it that much harder for unhoused people to exit homelessness, and are in clear violation of San Francisco’s own laws and policies—not to mention federal guidelines from the Biden Administration.
“The City’s halfhearted efforts at complying with the injunction are irresponsible,” added John Do, senior staff attorney with ACLU of Northern California, who also represents the plaintiffs. “The fact is that the problem of homelessness in San Francisco can be improved, but only if the City adequately trains all of its staff who regularly interact with the unhoused population.”