Ninth Circuit Ruling Challenges S.F.’s Anti-Homelessness Laws

The federal appeals court ruled that Western states can't prosecute people sleeping on streets when there are no shelter beds available.

Police and fire officials respond to a homeless encampment at Division and Florida streets as Department of Public Works crews conduct homeless sweeps on April 25, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s repeated criminalization of homelessness is finally being challenged. Under a new ruling by a federal appeals court, cities are not allowed to prosecute people for sleeping on public property if there is no available shelter.

The Ninth Circuit Court of appeals unanimously ruled in favor of a lawsuit by people experiencing homelessness that challenges laws in Boise, Idaho making it illegal to sleep on public property overnight. Such laws violate the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, the panel of judges ruled on Tuesday.

“It was great to hear that they were actually seeing or realizing and validating a lot of work that folks have been doing cross country for years,” says Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. “A lot of folks don’t know what’s going on.”

“What’s going on” is the repeated creation and enforcement of anti-homelessness measures by cities hiding behind a liberal guise. A 2015 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law found that California cities collectively implement 500 laws that restrict and criminalizes activity associated with being unhoused — more than double the amount since 1990.

San Francisco most-impacted policy will be the infamous sit-lie ordinance, which voters approved in 2010. The Budget Analyst reported in 2016 that the city spends at least $20.6 million each year on enforcing its more than 30 “quality-of-life” laws that criminalize homelessness, without reducing the number of people without homes. Cutler reports hearing more cases of misdemeanors being issued rather than citations — like one woman who received two in one day while trying to sleep.

Despite the federal court ruling, the city’s prosecution of the street population won’t stop overnight. 

“At this point, they’ll actually continue to do what they’re currently doing,” Cutler says. “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done before it actually takes hold.”

The Coalition on Homelessness is just starting to develop a strategy to enforce the ruling, which specifically applies to citing people sleeping when there isn’t housing or shelter spots available. As of Wednesday morning, the city has 1,104 people on a waitlist for shelter beds.

In the meantime, Cutler says the Coalition remains focused on proactive solutions, like Proposition C. A gross receipts tax increase for companies that make more than $50 million a year will generate $300 million for homeless services, like shelter beds, legal assistance, supportive housing, and mental health and substance abuse services.

But even as the campaign for the proposition, dubbed Our City, Our Home, pushes forward, city officials are weighing more ways to make it harder to sleep without stable housing. Supervisor Ahsha Safai is working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to ban oversize vehicles like RVs on De Wolf Street, between Alemany Boulevard and Lawrence Avenue near Interstate 280.

“These laws are created basically to get people to go somewhere else — basically to get rid of poor people,” Cutler says. “The fact is there’s nowhere to go.”

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