Court Lifts Rule Barring San Francisco From Cracking Down on Sprawling Homeless Encampments

The Ninth Circuit lifted an order blocking the city from enforcing its public camping ordinances, which the city said had tied its hands from clearing encampments.

AP/Jeff Chiu
Tents line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue at San Francisco. AP/Jeff Chiu

San Francisco will be able to enforce its ordinances that prohibit sleeping and camping on public property after the Ninth Circuit this week lifted a lower court’s order blocking the city from cracking down on the sprawling homeless encampments. 

It’s an indication that homelessness policy and legal proceedings are already changing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Grants Pass v. Johnson, when it held that a city enforcing generally-applicable shelter laws, even in the absence of available shelter beds, is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. 

Noting that homelessness could be the “defining” public safety and health crisis in the West Coast, the court said that encampments force adults and children to “navigate around used needles, human waste, and other hazards to make their way to school, the grocery store, or work.” The three liberal justices dissented from that ruling, warning that it would lead to vulnerable homeless people needing to either “either stay awake or be arrested.”

The Ninth Circuit on Monday cited the Grants Pass ruling when it lifted a district court’s injunction blocking San Francisco from clearing homeless encampments. The Ninth Circuit’s action came as homelessness and drug issues have taken a central role in the city’s heated mayoral race, and as voters have expressed frustration at the city’s national reputation crisis, as the Sun has reported

“We appreciate that the Ninth Circuit panel took quick action to ensure the preliminary injunction in San Francisco is in line with the Supreme Court’s decision in Grants Pass,” San Francisco’s city attorney, David Chiu, said in a statement, adding that it will help keep city streets safe. “It will help us address our most challenging encampments, where services are often refused and re-encampment is common.”

The city had argued that the lower court’s “sweeping” injunction, which prohibited the city from enforcing rules that prohibit sleeping and camping on public property until the city had shelter capacity for each homeless person, had placed the city in an “impossible situation.”

The thousands of homeless people sleeping on city streets in tents and sleeping bags “block sidewalks, prevent employees from cleaning public thoroughfares, and create health and safety risks,” the city argued, noting that local residents needed access to those public spaces as well. 

“Often encampments exist just outside of apartment buildings, schools, and other community buildings, forcing families with children and persons with disabilities to navigate them.” The city also argued that elected lawmakers should determine homeless policy, rather than sweeping court orders — a position the Supreme Court recently agreed with when it noted that “a handful of federal judges” can’t begin to match “the collective wisdom of the American people” and their representatives to determine pressing homelessness questions.

The homeless advocates opposing San Francisco had said that the city’s ordinances punished “hundreds of involuntarily homeless individuals each year simply for existing in public” and said the city had “threatened, cited, and arrested” thousands of homeless people for the “mere status” of not having a home.


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