Could a lawsuit finally convince San Francisco that homeless sweeps are futile?

On Monday afternoon, I drove into San Francisco and got off at the Fifth Street exit. While waiting for the lights to change, I saw six people — many wearing vests marked “Camp Resolutions” — oversee the removal of the homeless’s belongings along the highway.

A few hours later, I ran into a former resident of the camp who was grappling with how much he had lost. Earlier that day, he received a text saying he had made a doctor’s appointment. He was sure it was the 29th, not the 26th, but not wanting to miss it, he left his belongings at camp and ran to the doctor’s office. There, he was told the text message was sent accidentally; his date was right. When he came back, everything he had was taken by the city.

This is far from the most shocking whip I’ve ever heard of. For four years, I’ve been writing about the city’s cleanup of homeless camps, and I’ve seen tents occupied hours before storms hit, seen friends who were watching the cleanup being arrested, and heard people being swarmed by police. stopped story. Bulldozers destroyed their homes. With every sweep, people lose savings, family heirlooms, prescription drugs, and even human ashes.

The impact is traumatic.

A few months ago, I met a woman who lived outdoors who hadn’t slept for days. She live-streamed a sweep at her camp, leaving some public works employees in limbo for breaking the rules. In response, she said, a public works employee followed and threatened her for weeks. She was crying while talking, and the whole person was shaking with fright.

But no matter how many reports of the tragic results of these sweeps, nothing seems to have changed. There was a brief moment of outrage on Twitter, and then the practice continued.

As a journalist, I have long seen how retrograde these sweeps are. And now, at a time when conditions on our streets are more volatile than ever, the city will pay the price. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the San Francisco Civil Rights Lawyers’ Commission and Latham & Watkins LLP filed a massive 105-page lawsuit against the city on behalf of the Homeless Coalition and seven plaintiffs. The lawsuit says the city is tackling its homelessness crisis with “illegal and ineffective penalties, not affordable housing and shelter.”

The dense litigation and the legal team behind it are formidable opponents in San Francisco, which has struggled for decades to keep up with a growing homeless population.

Since 2018, the Healthy Streets Operations Center is a multi-agency agency tasked with eliminating physical evidence of homelessness, conducting hundreds of such operations each year. With an email or 311 call, anyone can trigger the deployment of police, public works employees and members of the city’s homeless outreach team. In response, they came to a camp, sorted out their belongings, and provided shelter for their residents — sort of. As Sam Dodge, director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, told me last year, the team typically has only a small number of camp beds available at any given time. But even that is uncertain; sweeps tend to start early in the morning, but shelter waitlist capacity isn’t released until 9:30 a.m. each day. That means people who have their tents confiscated by the city at 6 a.m. will have to wait three hours to determine if they are eligible for a bed.

More often, people dissipate, pitching tents a block away, until the cycle starts all over again. Evidence of ineffective sweeps is everywhere. A recent Chronicle report revealed that the number of chronically homeless people (defined as those who have been homeless for more than a year) rose from 2,138 in 2017 to 2,691 in 2022. A study released this week by the California Policy Lab, UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, criticized the city’s piecemeal approach to helping the most vulnerable homeless, arguing that It’s expensive and basically ineffective.

Sweeping down homeless camps will never solve the crisis on our streets. The few who received shelter in these operations did not justify the trauma caused and the taxes expended on these efforts. It has always been a disguise, trying to act as if the city is responding to residents’ concerns about the homeless crisis on their doorstep, without ever actually addressing its root causes or investing in solutions.

As a recent Chronicle poll showed, San Francisco has empathy for the homeless but incredibly low confidence that the crisis on our streets will be resolved. We are oversaturated with the daily tragedies of homelessness and distrust our city’s ability to respond.

But the law is catching up. The story of a homeless disabled walker being thrown into a trash compactor failed to change policy, and maybe this suit will eventually.

Nuala Bishari is a columnist and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email:

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