San Francisco Public Press, June 11, 2020
By Brian Howey
Three nonprofit groups have asked to be included in a lawsuit against San Francisco by the University of California Hastings law school and a Tenderloin business group over the worsening conditions in the neighborhood since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Their aim: ensuring homeless people’s needs are considered during negotiations on how to address the issue.
If granted, the motion would add the Coalition on Homelessness, homeless shelter Hospitality House and homeless services provider Faithful Fools as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in May. That would allow them to challenge some of the university’s complaints against the city, which the three groups say ignore the interests of unhoused residents and classify them as a public nuisance.
The groups believe the latter classification could lead to the city performing sweeps, or issuing move-along orders and confiscating belongings from homeless residents, said Lauren Hansen, the Public Interest Law Project attorney representing the service providers.
“Homeless people are the subject of the litigation, but they’re not part of it. So that’s why we’re intervening,” Hansen said. “If the court grants our motion for intervention, we’re hoping to be part of a remedy that ensures homelessness isn’t criminalized.”
UC Hastings and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit have had “at least six” settlement talks related to the suit so far, and her clients want to ensure that the homeless community has representation in future meetings, she said.
Rhiannon Bailard, executive director of operations at UC Hastings, said in an email that she would not discuss the motion to intervene, filed Tuesday, before she and her colleagues “had an opportunity to digest and to hear back from the Court on this matter.”
A group of 125 UC Hastings students and alumni signed a May 28 letter to university chancellor David Faigman expressing their concern that the lawsuit did not sufficiently consider the needs of the homeless community.
Last week, the coalition and 27 Tenderloin community groups asked UC Hastings chancellor David Faigman to sign a pledge to honor the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on the treatment of unhoused people during the pandemic. Those recommendations include providing outreach resources for unsheltered homeless residents and allowing homeless residents to remain in tents when no other options are available.
Faigman refused to sign the coalition’s pledge, said coalition director Jennifer Friedenbach, who viewed his refusal as a signal of the university’s intentions.
“They were only interested in getting rid of the tents,” she said.
In response to Friedenbach’s comment, UC Hastings spokeswoman Susan Kostal forwarded Faigman’s June 1 response to the letter and pledge. In it, Faigman dismisses claims that the school’s lawsuit against the city ignored the needs of the homeless community as false.
“Our lawsuit seeks to pressure the City to provide better options for unhoused persons,” he said in the letter. “There is neither dignity nor safety in living on the sidewalks of the Tenderloin.” The sheer number of signatures on the letter and pledge showed how much support the Tenderloin’s homeless community had already, Faigman continued.
“The housed residents, by contrast, have long been disregarded; they have endured dangerous and dirty streets for decades, conditions that would never be tolerated in more privileged neighborhoods,” he said. “The situation they suffer today has been magnified by COVID-19, but it is one that has long existed.”
The hearing for the motion is scheduled for July 22, though the three groups have filed a second motion requesting the court hear it sooner, Hansen said.
Tenderloin tensions boil over
In May, city leaders announced an eight-point plan to reduce the number of encampments by placing residents in hotels, addressing hygiene and drug dealing concerns, and increasing space for social distancing by closing streets and parking lanes in the Tenderloin. The moves came two days after the university filed the suit. A June 11 Hoodline report found that the city had fallen far short of its goals and many community leaders have voiced similar disappointment with the plan.
In a Thursday morning press conference held by Supervisor Matt Haney, Tenderloin community leaders claimed conditions in their neighborhood had grown increasingly squalid. Speakers complained that open-air drug dealing and use in the area continued nearly unabated and reported an increase in tents on the sidewalks since the city announced the plan.
“It makes it impossible to social distance,” said Curtis Bradford, co-chair of the Tenderloin People’s Congress. “We’re not asking for a lot, but we are asking for help.”
“I feel forgotten and abandoned,” he continued, through tears. “I feel me and my neighbors have been left to fend for ourselves in this pandemic,” he said. “All I want is some basic help.”
Haney, a vocal critic of the city’s response to homelessness during the pandemic, voiced his disappointment with the city’s progress in his district at a board of supervisors meeting that followed the press conference.
“This is a neighborhood that not only wants change, but has been demanding it,” he said.
In response to supervisors’ critiques of the city’s plan, Emergency Operations Center manager Mary Ellen Carroll outlined the plan’s successes. She said those include continued talks with community stakeholders, the city’s movement of “around 350 individuals” from Tenderloin homeless camps into hotel rooms and the addition of five portable toilets and seven handwashing stations.
“I have to contradict that nothing has happened,” Carroll said in response to Haney’s comments. “There has been a lot that has happened in the Tenderloin since we started.”
The city plans to bring more hotel rooms online next week; expand the Fulton Mall safe sleeping site, a city-sanctioned encampment; and extend the June 30 deadline for closing the site, Carroll said.
As the supervisors were meeting, Mission Local reported that city workers had launched an expansive, two-week operation in the Tenderloin to place hundreds of unhoused residents in hotel rooms. City workers had selected eight people to move into hotels, according to the report, which Mission Local said would be updated throughout the day.
Peachy Mathias, a representative of the Department of Emergency Management, confirmed the action in the Tenderloin was part of an initiative to move “roughly 350” people into hotel rooms as part of the city’s commitment to provide “a safe place to reside” during the pandemic.
“This action is a continuation of the work that has been ongoing on the streets of the Tenderloin,” Mathias wrote in an email. “To be clear, these hotel rooms are for unhoused individuals in the Tenderloin who are already known to the City’s system of care. People should not move to the Tenderloin expecting to receive placement in a hotel room."