San Francisco settles lawsuit over homeless camps, agrees to remove tents

©The Mercury News

SAN FRANCISCO — Potentially ending a legal battle over the explosion of homeless camps taking over the sidewalks of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, city leaders on Friday agreed to remove 70% of tents in the area by next month.

If approved by the city’s board of supervisors, the settlement will resolve a lawsuit filed in May by a group of Tenderloin residents and business owners, including UC Hastings College of the Law. The number of tents in the neighborhood increased 285% between January and April, as the city reduced its homeless shelter capacity by as much as 75% to allow space for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The results, plaintiffs said, are impassible sidewalks, drug dealers selling their wares with impunity and unsanitary, crowded conditions that pose a health risk for everyone in the neighborhood.

In Friday’s settlement, the city promised to remove 70% of the tents — about 300 tents — from the Tenderloin by July 20, after which it will work to eliminate all tents in the neighborhood.

“COVID-19 has impacted many communities in our City, but we know that the Tenderloin has been particularly hard-hit,” Mayor London Breed wrote in a statement. “We share the concerns that UC Hastings and residents of the Tenderloin have about what’s happening in the neighborhood, and we look forward to working collaboratively to implement the Stipulated Injunction so we help our unsheltered residents off the streets and into safer environments.”

But Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, argues the agreement flies in the face of federal health guidelines that say cities should not dismantle homeless encampments during the pandemic. She’s not convinced that everyone forced out of a tent under the terms of the settlement will be given access to shelter.

“This does not offer any form of a solution,” Friedenbach said. “It will, in fact, we believe exacerbate the problem by further displacing people and wasting valuable resources that could otherwise be spent on true solutions.”

The city plans to funnel residents who had been sleeping on Tenderloin streets into hotel rooms and sanctioned encampments. Officials have secured 2,373 hotel rooms for homeless and other vulnerable residents during the pandemic, 586 of which are available and ready to be occupied. Another 96 pandemic beds in congregate shelters are available. The city also has set up two sanctioned encampments, with space for 40 to 60 tents each, and has plans to open a third this month.

Going forward, the city vowed to prioritize hotel rooms for homeless residents from the Tenderloin. Officials estimate about 30% of people living outside in the Tenderloin would qualify for the hotel program, which seeks to house people 60 and older or who have underlying medical conditions.

And the city intends to temporarily move between 50 and 70 tents off Tenderloin sidewalks and into parking lots and other available land in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, officials will discourage new campers from setting up tents in the Tenderloin, and prohibit people from camping near doorways or fire hydrants, and from blocking sidewalks.

If people refuse shelter options offered by the city, the city “will employ enforcement measures,” according to the agreement. But it’s unclear how that promise lines up with a statement Breed made the day before. On Thursday, following massive protests against police brutality and calls to defund police departments across the country, Breed announced changes to the San Francisco Police Department that included diverting non-violent calls to other agencies — including homeless outreach teams.

The plaintiffs in the case agreed not to seek attorneys fees from the city. If San Francisco supervisors do not approve the settlement within three months, litigation may resume.

The board of supervisors has faced off against Breed multiple times over homeless housing during the pandemic, with supervisors pushing her to lease 7,000 hotel rooms to house the city’s homeless population, and Breed pushing back, deeming that number of rooms unfeasible.

Supervisor Matt Haney on Friday said he was reviewing the settlement. If the deal forces the city to bring homeless residents inside — preferably into hotels — it will be a good thing, he said.

“There are still a lot of questions about how exactly this will get done and what solutions will be offered to get people off the streets,” he wrote in a text message. “People here are tired of false promises. The conditions right now in the Tenderloin are totally inhumane and unconscionable.”

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©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)