Homeless San Francisco residents sue city for displacement and rights violations

The lawsuit argues that the city “punishes residents who have nowhere to go” in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The argument draws on the 2019 Ninth Circuit decision in Martin v. Boise, who concluded that homeless people cannot be penalized for sleeping on public property, if there is no alternative offered.

The lawsuit also alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and the due process requirement of the 14th Amendment.

“They were going out at, like, four in the morning, five in the morning. Usually when you’re deep asleep and it’s very, very cold,” said Toro Castaño, 51, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He lived on the streets of the Castro for two years, until the fall of 2021. “It was very traumatic because it is very cold outside and a lot of the things they take away are warm clothes, warm jackets, blankets, things you need just to survive.

Castaño had his property taken away by the city four times during the pandemic, according to the complaint, and settled a claim against the city for $9,000 after his property was destroyed. He now lives in a city co-op.

While Castaño was unhoused, he said he was asked to move out almost daily. “It makes you very sleep deprived, makes it hard to make decisions, to make appointments, to find a job, or to find a job — basically to function,” he said.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the goal of the lawsuit was to stop the sweeps, which she says only perpetuates homelessness. “When the city takes people’s IDs, their cell phones, the things they need to really navigate a very convoluted route off the streets, it ends up prolonging their homelessness,” she said. said, explaining that people can lose contact with social service. service providers and missed housing opportunities. “What we hear over and over again from people is that they feel like they’re starting from scratch.”

She argues that the city’s law enforcement resources would be better spent on housing and treatment programs. “It’s in everyone’s interest to really, really invest in the permanent solutions we need to solve homelessness,” she said.

The suit names the city and county of San Francisco; Mayor London Breed; Director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, Sam Dodge; and several municipal departments as defendants.

Jen Kwart, communications director for the city attorney’s office, said in a statement, “The city is strongly focused on expanding our temporary shelters and permanent housing options to alleviate our homelessness crisis. Once we receive the lawsuit, we will consider filing a lawsuit and responding in court.”

The city’s latest point count found a total of around 7,700 people living on the streets or in shelters, a 3.5% decrease since 2019. But, Latinx homelessness has soared 55% and black people continue to be overrepresented among the homeless, at 38% of the total homeless population compared to 6% of the general population.

Based on the new count, authorities now estimate that up to 20,000 people are homeless in a full year.

From 2015 to 2022, the city built only 2,067 low-rent housing units, barely a third of its target, while significantly exceeding its target for market-priced housing, according to the city’s 2020 housing inventory.

Emily Cohen, assistant director of communications for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, points out that since 2017, the city has nearly doubled the number of dedicated housing units for people coming out of homelessness.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to restrain the city from conducting sweeps or enforcing other orders that punish sleeping on public property while the lawsuit is proceeding.

Castaño said he hopes the lawsuit will lead to more affordable housing and better conditions for homeless people. “I hope people on the streets will be a bit more protected, that they won’t have the things they used to survive and keep warm taken away from them,” he said. “And there’s a little more compassion.”