San Francisco city officials at a recent town hall meeting discussed their efforts to address tent encampments on city streets, an issue that is the topic of an ongoing legal dispute in federal court.

On Dec. 23, U.S. District Court Judge Donna Ryu in Oakland entered a preliminary injunction forbidding the city to enforce or threaten to enforce local ordinances against encampments on city streets as long as the city did not have enough beds to shelter all unhoused individuals.

The decision is potentially far reaching, because the parties agree that the city’s existing shelter beds are virtually full and there remain thousands of unsheltered people.

At a Jan. 17 town hall meeting on public safety at Marina Middle School, the discussion focused on crime on city streets as well as homelessness and tent encampments.

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and Police Chief Bill Scott were members of a seven-person panel that included representatives from the city’s departments of public works, health, emergency management and homelessness and supportive housing.

Comments and questions from the audience focused on the growth in street crime, particularly drug sales and open use, and the city’s response.

Many of the questions related to unsheltered individuals living on the street and reflected dissatisfaction with the city’s effort to reduce homelessness and encampments.

Emily Cohen of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said that she took pride in the fact that more than 2,000 people have been placed in permanent housing over the last year. However, she admitted that the shelter system is full.

Difficult questions

One of the most difficult questions was directed to Sam Dodge of the city’s Department of Emergency Management.

Dodge was asked “what will be the impact on the city if the current lawsuit against encampment resolution prevails?”

Dodge was clearly uncomfortable with the question, likely because virtually every day since the injunction was entered, the city has sent more than a dozen workers to “engage” with large tent encampments. The city team — more than a dozen city workers from a cluster of city agencies including police — visits one encampment around 7 a.m. And engages another around 1 p.m.

At a hearing on Jan. 12, the city’s lawyers told Ryu that their primary purpose in visiting the sites is to offer shelter and services. An additional purpose is to clean the sites. No other purpose was identified.

The plaintiffs — the nonprofit advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness and various individuals including several who have experienced homelessness — don’t have a problem with the city pursuing those ends. They welcome offers of shelter and/or services and they are not against moving for a few hours if the city wants to clean the sidewalks.

“Defendants have continued engaging in sweep operations, ordering unhoused people to move, and putting their belongings at risk.”

Court filing

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs say that their observers “have not seen much indication that the city’s purported purpose is actually being communicated or followed through with on the ground.” Hadley Rood, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said they have reports that city workers “continue to operate as business-as-usual.”

In affidavits submitted to the court after the injunction was entered but before the Jan. 12 hearing, plaintiffs say that the unsheltered individuals in encampments believe that they they are required to break their camp, leave and not return.

According to the lawyers, “Defendants have continued engaging in sweep operations, ordering unhoused people to move, and putting their belongings at risk.”

In speaking to the crowd at the town hall, Dodge admitted that “there’s a lot of confusion in the rank and file” about the order and said that there is “work we need to do so that everyone is comfortable in the work we do and proud of the work we do. And we really do depend on the support of the public to do our job as well.”

He said that the city lawyers were working to get the confusion resolved. And with respect to ongoing engagements with encampments, he added, “We’ve not stopped and we’re going to continue.”

The city has not appealed Ryu’s injunction at this time but Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office said, “we are now evaluating all potential next steps.”