Victory! Judge Grants Preliminary Injunction Barring San Francisco from Brutal Practice of Criminalizing Homelessness as Cover for the City’s Affordable Housing Failures.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 24th December 2022

MEDIA CONTACT: Raya Steier 530-723-2426


Last night, just a day after the preliminary hearing in the case, a federal judge in the Northern District Court of California granted an emergency order in our lawsuit against the City of San Francisco for criminalizing homelessness. The urgently drafted, robust order prohibits the City from enforcing an array of brutal policing practices that violate the civil rights of unhoused San Franciscans. Additionally, the order stops the City from seizing and destroying unhoused people’s survival gear and personal property—an appalling practice that violates the City’s own policies.

This is an early victory for unhoused San Franciscans who are fighting to hold the City accountable for its failed response to the City’s mounting affordability crisis. The City has scapegoated unhoused people for a crisis that the City itself has created by refusing to expand affordable housing—which forces thousands of the City’s long-time residents, who are disproportionately people of color, onto the streets every year. The City uses brutal criminalization as a tool to vilify these residents, when it knows full-well it is just punishing poverty. San Francisco deserves real solutions to homelessness. Affordable housing, not criminalization, is the only real solution.

In her order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu found that the Plaintiffs would likely succeed on their claim that the City blatantly violates its own policies, which purport to require a service-first approach to homelessness. The City spends millions of dollars in tax revenue to cite, fine, and arrest unhoused people for sleeping in public, while seizing and destroying their personal property and survival gear, like medications, prosthetics, laptops, mobile phones, and blankets. Meanwhile, the City has little to offer unhoused residents in terms of shelter, services, or housing.  

San Francisco’s half-hearted response to the Court relied on stereotypes of unhoused people. The City suggested that all unhoused people engage in drug sales, that their belongings create health hazards, and that they refuse to accept shelter when it is offered. The Court flatly rejected these allegations—which contradicted the record in this case. Additionally, the Court recognized that San Francisco has effectively closed its shelter system—even while there are hundreds of people currently on the waitlist. The ruling allows the City to enforce its health and safety laws, if they genuinely apply. The City may still clean streets of trash and ensure adequate access to sidewalks. But it cannot continue to target and punish unhoused people just because they are homeless.

The Court’s order directs the City to immediately halt these harmful incarceration-era policies that have done nothing to solve homelessness and have, in fact, made the crisis worse. In granting the order, the Court also acknowledges that the City’s cruel policies have made it harder for people to exit homelessness. This sends a clear message to the City—it cannot arrest its way out of its affordable housing crisis.

Attorney Quotes:

Zal K. Shroff, Senior Staff Attorney, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area:

“San Francisco’s homelessness crisis starts and ends with the City’s refusal to build affordable housing. The Court’s order finally recognizes that San Francisco has been lying to the public about its response to the homelessness crisis for years. Taxpayers should be incensed that the City is policing poverty to cover up its political failures—spending millions to get us exactly nowhere. Today we set the record straight. San Francisco residents deserve far better than this cowardly, brutal, and misguided approach to a housing crisis of the City’s own making.”

John Do, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of Northern California:

“Tonight, as many families gather in their warm homes to observe the holiday, thousands of San Franciscans will be outside in the cold. This ruling blocks the City from punishing people for sleeping outdoors when they clearly have nowhere else to go. This ruling protects unhoused people’s constitutional right to exist, to have belongings, and to survive the best they can– a right that the City has continually violated by criminalizing universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.”

Client Quotes:

Jennifer Freidenbach, Executive Director, Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco:

“Finally, after years of brutality, the City is being forced to stop their illegal treatment of unhoused residents.  This holiday season, unhoused San Franciscans will not have to worry about having their medicines and survival gear illegally confiscated by the City, nor worry about being harshly displaced in the early morning hours with nowhere to sleep. We are relieved and hopeful that San Francisco will halt wasting taxpayer dollars on displacement operations and instead use that valuable funding to house our neighbors.”