SF Supervisors OK Tenderloin settlement over homeless tents but worry it will inspire more lawsuits

San Francisco Chronicle, August 19, 2020

By Trisha Thadani


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors hesitantly approved a settlement Tuesday with UC Hastings that compelled the city to clear the Tenderloin’s “dangerously crowded sidewalks” of tents — but does not require a payout.


Still, some supervisors feared their approval would inspire copycat litigation and send a message to the public that lawsuits are the only way to get San Francisco to address its homeless crisis with urgency. Since the Tenderloin lawsuit, at least three other groups of neighbors or businesses have sued the city over tent encampments


The settlement passed 7-4, with Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton in the dissent.


“There are so many other ways that we could have worked together where we wouldn’t be ... forced to solve this through litigation,” Walton said. “I am ashamed of what I think is a heartless lawsuit.”


UC Hastings College of the Law filed a federal lawsuit in May on behalf of a group of Tenderloin residents and business owners who were fed up with the neighborhood’s deteriorating conditions. The long-troubled area saw a staggering 285% increase in tents within the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, as homeless shelters reduced their populations to permit social distancing and record job loss pushed more people toward poverty.


San Francisco and UC Hastings — which is located in the Tenderloin — reached a settlement in June, in which the city agreed to remove 70% of the tents and move those living on the streets into vacant hotel rooms or sanctioned encampments by the end of July. After July, the city must make all “reasonable efforts” to permanently reduce “the number of tents, along with all other encamping materials and related personal property, to zero.”


A few weeks later, 10 different city departments, community members and several nonprofits helped clear tents and move people into shelter. City officials said that effort was under way before the settlement was reached.


As of Tuesday, San Francisco has cleared more than 87% of the tents from the Tenderloin and moved about 615 people into hotels, safe sleeping sites or other shelter, according to city data. The breakdown between how many people were moved into hotels and safe sleeping sites — which are sanctioned lots for people to pitch tents and access portable bathrooms — is unclear.


There were fewer visible tents in the Tenderloin during a walk through the neighborhood on a recent afternoon, but there are still an abundance of people on the city’s streets without the shelter and resources they need — especially amid a deadly pandemic. Supervisors who represent other districts, like the Bayview, Mission and the Haight, complain the issue has just been moved to other parts of the city.


Although the terms of the settlement were already satisfied, the Board of Supervisors still had to approve the settlement at its weekly meeting Tuesday. The debate that ensued Tuesday night was more about precedent and symbolism than the tents in the Tenderloin.


UC Hastings Chancellor and Dean David Faigman told the board Tuesday night that he decided to sue San Francisco because he was frustrated the city “hasn’t figured out how to solve a fundamental civil rights issue.”


“I always thought that Hastings was on the same side as the city, but maybe we needed a federal court to help us get to where we needed to go,” he said.


Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal court over the past few months. One was by residents of Larch Street, a block-long alley near Opera Plaza that was overrun with tents. A second was filed in July by a group of businesses and residents over the conditions of Jessie Street in the Mid-Market neighborhood. Another concerns Eddy Street in the Tenderloin.


By approving the settlement, “the board hereby approves of the now normalized precedent of litigating away the unhoused, with property owners deploying lawsuits against San Francisco’s unhoused,” the Coalition on Homelessness said in a statement after the vote.


While the supervisors were thankful hundreds of people have been moved into hotels in the past few weeks, Preston said he was frustrated that the litigation didn’t seek to expand the pool of resources available for the city to respond to its homeless crisis — like hotel rooms, housing and other services for the most vulnerable.


“I am disappointed,” he said. “I thought the lawsuit might result in that, whether it was the city agreeing to ramp up and get another 500 or 1,000 hotel rooms, or Hastings or other neighbors agreeing to contribute their abilities” to increase resources.


San Francisco has rented 2,299 hotel rooms for the homeless. As of Tuesday, 1,943 are occupied, according to city data.


While the board has been pushing Mayor London Breed to acquire thousands more hotel rooms and to fill them immediately, she has repeatedly insisted that her administration is doing everything it can, legally and logistically, to move people inside as quickly as possible.


If the board did not approve the settlement Tuesday night, the litigation against the city could have resumed. Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, said the “continued risk and liability” wasn’t worth it, given that the terms of the settlement had already been accomplished.


He cited “positive” changes in the neighborhood over the past few weeks, but said there was much more work to be done.


“The situation two months ago had become so awful and untenable, and we really needed some urgent and sweeping change,” he said. “And we’ve seen some of that. But we still have a long way to go.”

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