City Attorney David Chiu

City Attorney issues statement before oral arguments in homeless encampment lawsuit appeal

Lower court order puts San Francisco in an untenable situation and reaches far beyond legal precedent

SAN FRANCISCO (August 22, 2023) — City Attorney David Chiu issued the following statement on the eve of oral arguments in the City’s appeal of the preliminary injunction order in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco. The City appealed a lower court preliminary injunction order that exceeds legal precedent and hampers San Francisco’s ability to alleviate homelessness.

City Attorney David Chiu
City Attorney David Chiu

“We are asking the Ninth Circuit to restore reason to this case,” said City Attorney Chiu. “This injunction has put our City in a terrible position, and we are seeing the adverse impacts on our streets. Unhoused people are now refusing to engage with San Francisco’s outreach workers and refusing shelter offers more frequently. People living in encampments on the streets tell outreach workers they are doing so because the injunction allows them to. We sincerely hope the Court can bring our City some measure of relief so that we can both address street conditions while continuing to compassionately address the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.”

In recent years, San Francisco has spent billions of dollars to address homelessness, investing in permanent supportive housing and homelessness services. In 2022 alone, the City’s budget for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing was in excess of $600 million. Each year, the City engages, shelters, and houses thousands of unhoused residents to alleviate what is now a nationwide crisis.

Despite this investment in a services-first approach, the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit in 2022 challenging the City’s practices related to homeless encampments. In December 2022, District Court Judge Donna Ryu issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits San Francisco from enforcing or threatening to enforce certain laws prohibiting public lodging or camping against “involuntarily homeless individuals” as long as the number of people experiencing homelessness exceeds the number of available shelter beds.

This order puts San Francisco in an impossible situation. The injunction prevents San Francisco from enforcing or threatening to enforce public camping laws against nearly anyone experiencing homelessness until San Francisco has sufficient shelter beds to house every person in the City experiencing homelessness. Building enough shelter for all unhoused people in San Francisco would require many years and an additional $1.45 billion, which is nearly one-third of the City’s general fund budget.

The district court’s injunction also saddles the City with complying with an order that is vague and uncertain. For example, it does not define “involuntarily homeless,” which has created uncertainty about whether the City can enforce laws against those who refuse shelter or have shelter beds but choose to maintain tents on the street. This is especially problematic as over half of the unhoused individuals approached by City workers reject offers of shelter.

Similarly, the injunction does not define what is a threat of enforcement. Plaintiffs have argued, and the district court has made comments in agreement, that the mere presence of uniformed law enforcement at encampment resolutions constitutes a threat and “criminalizes” homelessness. This glosses over the dangerous situations City workers encounter during encampment resolutions and is out of touch with the reality of street conditions.

Due to the untenable and uncertain position the injunction puts the City in and the district court’s unwillingness to clarify the injunction, San Francisco had to appeal the injunction to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This matter is not only critical to San Francisco, but may have implications for cities across the Ninth Circuit that are grappling with their own issues surrounding homeless encampments on public property. That’s why the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties and the International Municipal Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief supporting the City’s appeal.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the appeal on Wednesday, August 23 at 9:30 a.m. PT. Information on oral argument live streaming can be found here. The case is Coalition on Homelessness, et al. v. City and County of San Francisco, et al., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 23-15087.