Homeless Tenderloin residents may face massive police enforcement in Hastings settlement

Tents line the sidewalk along Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin. – Photo: Kevin N. Hume, SF Examiner

by Joe Wilson, Jennifer Friedenbach and Sam Dennison

San Francisco – As thousands protest to end police violence during a pandemic, disproportionately Black homeless residents may face massive police enforcement in a settlement reached between the City of San Francisco and UC Hastings College of Law. The settlement compels the City to “employ enforcement measures” for those who do not accept shelter placements or safe sleeping sites – yet provides less than 10 percent of homeless residents with such offers. 

Three Tenderloin based nonprofits, Hospitality House, Faithful Fools and the Coalition on Homelessness, seeking to intervene on behalf of homeless residents, raise serious moral and legal concerns about the settlement. The settlement proposes that the City remove tents and offer hotel rooms and safe camping sites for only a tiny portion of the people living on the streets of the Tenderloin. 

The intervening non-profits contend that the 300 hotel rooms and 75 slots for tents in safe sites is insufficient to meet the needs of more than 3,659 unhoused residents of District 6.

The settlement proposes the removal of 70 percent of the tents currently in the Tenderloin by July 20, 2020, and authorizes the use of enforcement, presumably police enforcement, to prevent re-encampment. The settlement also states, “The City will make all reasonable efforts to achieve the shared goal of permanently reducing the number of tents, along with all other encamping materials and related personal property, to zero.” At the same time, none of the City’s homeless shelters are accepting new residents. 

The intervening non-profits say that the settlement could violate homeless people’s right to use tents and sleeping bags to sleep safely on the streets. This right was acknowledged by the federal court in Martin v. Boise in 2019. The court held that absent safe and appropriate shelter or housing, these residents have a constitutional right to be free from criminalization if they are residing outside with no available shelter options. A zero-tent policy in the Tenderloin would likely criminalize homeless people for non-criminal behavior in the Tenderloin. 

Prior to the motion for intervention and subsequent settlement, dozens of community organizations serving Tenderloin residents urged Hastings to protect the rights of unhoused residents to the same extent they are seeking to protect housed residents in a petition that Hastings Chancellor David Faigman refused to sign. Statements from the lawsuit’s plaintiffs make clear that their intent is to clear homeless residents rather than provide them the housing they need. In one recent CNN interview, Faigman stated, “What we want is to clear the streets.” 

“UC Hastings has chosen human removal over human rights – a dangerous precedent. Now is the time for more justice – not more racism.”

According to Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House, “This settlement validates exactly why we wanted to intervene – to respect the rights of all persons to due process. In the midst of a public health crisis, housing for all should be the highest priority. 

“UC Hastings has chosen human removal over human rights – a dangerous precedent. Now is the time for more justice – not more racism. We hope the Board of Supervisors will answer that call for justice.” 

“Three hundred hotel rooms is nowhere near enough for the number of people who are on the street. If hotels are not offered, our unhoused neighbors have a right to tents to keep themselves and their community safe during this pandemic,” Sam Dennison, co-director of Faithful Fools, said. 

“Removing tents is an ineffective means of addressing homelessness. Someday we will provide housing to all who need it. Until then, there are realistic ways to manage tents so that the sidewalks are clean and there is room for wheelchairs and pedestrians.”

“Just yesterday, the mayor announced SFPD reforms including an end to the police response to homelessness, in response to Black and allied uprisings taking place in the City and across the country. Then we woke up this morning to the City agreeing to a settlement that calls for the opposite: a police response to homelessness,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelesness. 

“Reaching a settlement before unhoused people have a chance to weigh in is both irresponsible and cruel. It will only serve to exacerbate the very injustices of homelessness that the mostly Black unhoused residents of the Tenderloin are facing today and do nothing to solve the issue for the businesses UC Hastings is purporting to act on behalf of.” 

“Upon initial review, it appears that the end result will be sweeps and the violation of the constitutional and statutory rights of unhoused persons,” said Lauren Hansen, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Project, one of the legal firms representing the plaintiffs. “This only underscores how important it is for the organizations to intervene in the case – to protect these rights.” 

Hospitality House Executive Director Joe Wilson can be reached at jwilson@hospitalityhouse.org, Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach at jfriedenbach@cohsf.org and Faithful Fools Executive Director Sam Dennison at sam.dennison.01@gmail.com