Largely Latine and Black Coalition of Unhoused People Sue San Francisco

A San Francisco Public Health employee throws away items from a tent encampment by the Ferry Building in June. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS OF THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA

Teresa Sandoval was sleeping on the corner of 13th and Mission Street one evening in June when she was awoken by city officials demanding that she move. A double amputee, the Latine and Indiginous woman was moving slowly in a wheelchair. The Department of Public Health workers seized her purse, her tent, and her prosthetics, which she then saw being thrown into a dump truck.

This was not a new occurrence for Sandoval. In her time living unhoused over the past several years, she noted that city officials have regularly harassed her, often saying things like, “I’m going to detain you if you don’t move.” She has been given “move-along orders,” which are forced removals of homeless encampments. Unhoused people are subject to arrest or detention if they do not follow demands. After being served these orders, Sandoval was not offered shelter or supportive services. 

Sandoval is one of seven unhoused plaintiffs whose stories came to light in a Sept. 27 complaint suing the City and County of San Francisco. Attorneys for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the ACLU of Northern California have filed suit on behalf of these seven unhoused people, along with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

Defendants in the lawsuit also include the San Francisco Police Department, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the San Francisco Fire Department, the Department of Emergency Management, Healthy Streets and Operations Center Director Sam Dodge, and Mayor London Breed.

The lawsuit finds that the perpetual nature of these sweeps, paired with a lack of shelter for unhoused people, violates a number of laws, primarily the Eighth Amendment and the California constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The suit claims that, “the City has embarked on a campaign of driving its unsheltered residents out of town — or at least out of sight — in violation of their constitutional rights.”

In an interview with the Foghorn, Zal Shroff, a senior attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee and one of the lead lawyers in this lawsuit, said, “the city can say that it’s ending homelessness when all it’s doing is kicking the can down the road, harassing people, which only furthers their homelessness.” 

While the City could not comment on the lawsuit specifically, in a statement to the Foghorn, Emily Cohen, Deputy Director for Communications & Legislative Affairs in the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that San Francisco has been working on increasing shelter spaces for unhoused people. 

“Since June 2020 the City has expanded permanent supportive housing units by nearly 3,000 new units (leases, acquisitions or new tenant-based subsidies). The City shelter system has expanded to a capacity of 3,068 beds for adults, TAY [Traditional Aged Youth] and families,” she said. 

The plaintiffs do not find this expansion sufficient. The lawsuit says that approximately 8,000 residents are unhoused, leaving nearly 5,000 without city shelter. 

Considering that five out of the seven unhoused plaintiffs are Latine and Black, racial discrimination is one of the pillars of the plaintiffs’ argument. They claim that the city’s homelessness problem is “rooted in decades of racial redlining and exclusionary zoning practices, designed to kick low-income Black and brown families out.”

California has the highest population of unhoused people in the country, according to data from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. A new report from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing found that homelessness in San Francisco Latine populations has increased by 55% since 2019 alone. 

The same report showed that this year, while Latine people make up 16% of the city population, they make up 30% of the homeless population. Similarly, Black people make up 6% of the city’s population but 37% of those on the streets, according to Shroff. 

“The criminalization of homelessness is a racial justice issue,” he said. “San Francisco has a history of racialized exclusion. It has been on a process of making its communities whiter for quite some time with its target housing policies.” 

The current gentrification of historically Latine neighborhoods, paired with job loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in many more people living on the streets. 

“The homelessness crisis is an affordability crisis and housing crisis. There are heavy racial injustices that are playing into those dynamics that the city has to resolve,” Shroff said. “San Francisco is waging a war on communities of color.”

One of the plaintiffs, Toro Castaño, a Latine artist who became unhoused during the COVID-19 pandemic, found the sweeps to be “a dehumanizing disruption to the small ounce of stability that I was trying to build for myself during one of the hardest times of my life.”

The suit reports that the city destroyed Castaño’s MacBook Pro and tent, along with other belongings. He recently settled a claim against the city for $9,000. 

On the Hilltop, this suit has caused community members to reflect on perception, race, and economic impediments. 

For Kemelyn Alvarado, a board member of USF’s Latinx Undergrad Network of Activists and a third-year politics major, rectifying the mistreatment of Latine unhoused people is a passion. 

“Raiding someone’s place of living is unconstitutional and inhumane,” she said. “If raids and destruction of property were occurring in any neighborhood, this would make headlines everywhere. Not only is there a criminalization of the individual because they are homeless but also because of their Black or brown skin.” 

The plaintiffs are filing for declaratory and injunctive relief, which means that instead of just monetary compensation, they are asking for legal compensation. They are working to end move-along orders, as failure to move currently threatens citation and arrest.

“What we hope [the city] will do is invest in affordable housing, because every dollar that goes to affordable housing is something that prevents people from entering homelessness in the first place,” Shroff said. “Understandably, no one wants to see homelessness, but they have categorically failed at the things that actually do respond to the homelessness crisis, such as new affordable housing.”

For USF community members looking to get involved in advocacy, Shroff suggests knowing the facts. “The best way to advocate is to arm yourself with the information you need for the cause. The truth matters a tremendous amount, especially when there’s incentive for power structures to conceal their wrongdoing, shining a light on that is what is most critical. 

“For students who are engaged, they [should] do that work for themselves, to think critically about these issues,” Shroff said. “Several witnesses in this case, are organizers or just ordinary volunteers who saw what was going on here, saw that it was wrong, and thought they needed to do something about it. And that’s really powerful.”

Megan Robertson is the Foghorn’s news editor and a third-year media studies and performing arts and social justice double major. She covers breaking campus news and can be reached at mrrobertson2@dons.usfca.edu

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