Will Supreme Court Homeless Decision Change San Francisco?

by on April 29, 2024

A Test for Mayoral Candidates

After last week’s oral arguments the Supreme Court left no doubt that the Ninth Circuit ruling in Grants Pass will be overturned. Local anti-camping bans will be revived. Cities will regain power to protect the health and safety of their sidewalks.

The Supreme Court decision in June will offer a major test for all major West Coast cities, particularly San Francisco. How San Francisco meets this test could decide the November mayor’s race.

Understanding the Ruling

Prior to Grants Pass the Ninth Circuit enshrined the right to camp in its September 2018 ruling in Martin v. Boise. The court found that cities could not cite people for violating anti-camping laws if they did not have enough shelter beds for their homeless population.

Camping exploded in major West Coast cities post- Boise. Grants Pass then built on Boise’s holding that enforcing anti-camping laws without shelter availability represented “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court will likely overturn both Ninth Circuit rulings. This should also lead to a modification of the injunction issued against San Francisco in December 2022.

The Impact on Homelessness

This is the most important case about homelessness in at least 40 years,” said Jesse Rabinowitz of the Homelessness Law Center. “This will either make it easier for cities to punish people for sleeping outside … or it will push cities to fund actual solutions to homelessness.”—KQED, April 19

Many argue that allowing cities to restrict camping discourages them from providing resources to reduce homelessness. As Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath told the LA Times, striking down Grants Pass will “further enable cities to push people from community to community, without a commitment to housing or services.”

But the west coast cities that saw camping explode since Boise all have political constituencies that support combating homelessness. Meanwhile, the Ninth Circuit rulings never resulted in a noticeable increase in homeless services in smaller, affluent cities across the west coast like Mill Valley, Laguna Beach, and dozens of similar areas.

San Francisco’s experience particularly contradicts the idea that only court rulings can push major cities to invest in reducing homelessness.

San Francisco and Homelessness

San Francisco began spending tens of millions of dollars annually combating homelessness in the early 1980’s. San Francisco did not need Boise or Grants Pass to be “pushed to fund actual solutions to homelessness.” It did so massively without court orders. Mayor Art Agnos (1988-1991) set San Francisco on the right course by shifting city spending from one to three night SRO stays to permanent supportive housing. No mayor in the nation more zealously pushed to increase spending on the unhoused.

Every subsequent San Francisco mayor has pushed to increase resources for the unhoused. Frank Jordan (1992-95) backed more punitive approaches—as mayor he placed many ballot measures limiting panhandling—but his administration did not cut homeless spending.

San Francisco increased homeless spending because voters and politicians demanded it. No court orders were needed.

San Francisco is Exhibit A for the inability of major cities to solve homelessness on their own. None can fill the funding gap for the extreme cuts in federal housing spending responsible for the homeless crisis in the first place. San Francisco has passed multiple affordable housing bonds since 1996. In November 2018 voters passed a tax to fund homelessness estimated to raise $250 million to $300 million annually.

No court order required this tax.

San Francisco is also Exhibit A for local voters blaming city officials for an affordable housing crisis that was long an exclusively federal responsibility. Even though the federal government historically has been the government entity that subsidizes rents, many insist that San Francisco should be able to perform magic and solve the crisis on its own.

San Francisco  voters backing affordable housing bonds have also passed nearly two dozen “quality of life” laws that ban encampments in parks and restrict sitting and lying on the sidewalk. In November 2016, a massive presidential year voter turnout passed Prop Q. Prop Q banned tents on city sidewalks (its chief sponsor was Mark Farrell).

Magistrate Ryu’s December 2022 injunction essentially held that Grants Pass pre-empted all of these voter-approved laws. The Supreme Court ruling will restore them.

Does San Francisco Have the Political Will?

The ultimate question is whether San Francisco’s political leaders have the political will to enforce voter-approved camping bans. Bans necessary to protect the health and safety of nearby residents and businesses.

No court order has stopped San Francisco from ensuring six feet of passage between a tent and sidewalk to comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act. And other than a brief period from January-August 2023, no court order has stopped the SFPD from removing campers who refuse shelter.

So why does San Francisco still have so many campers? It’s a question of political will.

By “political will” I mean ensuring that the SFPD is willing to arrests campers who repeatedly violate the city’s anti-camping laws. The campers who repeatedly refuse shelter and return to areas like Willow Alley and Leavenworth and Ellis because they prefer the camping lifestyle.

Many are drug users. They provide and sustain a drug dealing market that is wrecking San Francisco’s economy.

The Ninth Circuit rulings and Ryu injunction have made officers skittish about arresting campers. But the Supreme Court ruling will change this.

Voters should ask mayoral candidates whether, if elected,  they will have the SFPD prioritize arresting campers who refuse shelter and repeatedly return to sites where they have been displaced. San Franciscans don’t like to talk about arresting “the unhoused.” But the ongoing encampments on Willow Alley, Larch Street, and in the Tenderloin and SOMA make it clear that many campers will not stop short of threat of arrest.

Campers who reject shelter are not being offered “handcuffs rather than shelter.” They are being offered shelter and instead are choosing to violate public health and safety codes as well as federal disability laws.

Is arresting people who refuse shelter, violate voter-enacted camping bans, and subject low-income residents to health and safety dangers “criminalizing homelessness”? Or is it protecting the health and safety of those negatively impacted by criminal violations?

The city turned neighborhoods like the Tenderloin into containment zones because politicians know better than to allow camping on sidewalks on Union Street, Clement Street, 24th Street or other affluent neighborhoods. Tenderloin residents and small businesses pay the price for those demanding the city allow camping on sidewalks.

The prospect of arrest will convince many campers to stop. It will certainly reduce the drug tourism that is damaging San Francisco’s image across the world.

Some will argue that the police have more important priorities. But their current practice of  removing the same campers time and again wastes police resources. Clearing sidewalks once and for all saves police resources and better serves residents and businesses.

Voters passed anti-camping laws because they want them enforced. And a mayor unwilling to ensure this enforcement will perpetuate camping and drug tourism in San Francisco.

What About Those Who Want Shelter?

Until roughly 2010 I estimated that only 10% of those camping on San Francisco sidewalks refused shelter. But as recovery advocate Tom Wolf always says, fentanyl changed the game. Drug tourism has raised the percentage of campers refusing shelter to 60-95%, depending on the time of year and who you ask.

Does San Francisco have enough shelter and housing to meet current demand? If not, the city should start by vastly expand drug-free recovery based housing. Mayor Breed and a Board of Supervisors majority supports this. Assembly member Matt Haney is trying to increase state resources via AB 2479. Those desiring drug-free recovery housing deserve a drug-free option.

I know there is a lot of support for expanding San Francisco’s shelter system.  But let’s see how big the shelter demand actually is once campers refusing shelter are permanently displaced from sidewalks.

Meanwhile, the city can make real progress in reducing homelessness by helping to pass a  November 2024 Bay Area ballot measure that will likely include an up to $20 billion affordable housing bond paid out over ten plus years. That’s a strategy all sides can agree is necessary to reduce homelessness.

And voters won’t need a court order to back this bond.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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