SAN FRANCISCO — On a frosty December morning, Victoria Solomon recounted how San Francisco police had rousted her awake hours earlier, and threatened to take her to jail if she didn’t clear out within 10 minutes.
They tried to force her out of a public area without offering a shelter bed as required by law, Solomon said. At least this time city workers didn’t trash their belongings, she said. This would have forced her to find a new tent, bedding and clothes — not to mention new identification and Social Security cards, as well as a cell phone.
“You can be as tough as you want on people, that’s not going to magically create a house for them. And they don’t have disappearing powers,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.
In September, the organization and seven individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless again south San Francisco for violating the city’s own policies regarding providing shelter beds. They also said that city workers have thrown out peoples’ personal belongings such as medication, wheelchairs, prosthetics, laptops and cell phones, against city policy.
Solomon is among an estimated 7,800 people without a home in San Francisco, a city that has come to be seen as an emblem of California’s staggering inability to counter the homeless crisis. Homeowners, businesses and local leaders in San Francisco are frustrated with visible signs of homelessness — which includes public streets blocked by sprawling tents and trash.
Solomon is frustrated too. “Who says I’m not part of the community just because I’m homeless?” she said.
Two of the sweeps she experienced this year happened in the Castro neighborhood, where she noted that civil rights activists once stood up for marginalized peoples’ rights. Now, residents and nearby businesses call the police on her.
The 34-year-old has been homeless for about a decade. Solomon said she is bipolar and struggles with drug addiction, as well as grief from the deaths of her son and mother a year apart.
She travels lightly — a rolling suitcase, tent, dog food and two dogs — and is afraid to leave her belongings unattended. Law enforcement has threatened to take her to jail on an arrest warrant from another county — which she said was for minor drug possession.
Amid rising rents and a national shortage of affordable housing, more than 100,000 people are living on California’s streets. Hawaii, Oregon, and Arizona are among other western states where more homeless people live outside in cars and tents than indoors in shelters, despite billions spent to curb homelessness, including San Francisco’s $672 million annual budget.
Increasingly, advocates for people without housing are fighting back in court — as in the lawsuit filed in San Francisco, where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $3,000.
Attorneys for the city deny that workers illegally force people to move or throw out personal items, saying there are strict policies that balance individual rights with the need to clean public spaces.
Across the country, frustration over the crisis has unified Democratic and Republican leaders in embracing tough-on-homelessness tactics, much to the dismay of homeless advocates and even Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration, which has warned against hastily executed encampment closures.
In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a plan to provide medical care to homeless people with untreated psychosis, even against their will — and he has literally rolled up his shirt sleeves to join encampment cleanups. Under the program, people struggling with alcohol and opioid addiction won’t qualify for treatment unless they have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder.
The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, which houses the Healthy Streets Operations Center that coordinates encampment cleanups, said in a statement that outreach workers talk to unhoused residents beforehand to explain the process and offer services, including shelter.
From June 2020 to September 2022, San Francisco carried out 1,200 formal encampment cleanups and outreach workers encountered more than 10,000 people, according to the emergency management department.
There are also informal requests for homeless people to move, like the one Solomon encountered, so it’s not possible to know the full scale of enforcement actions taken, or threatened to be taken, against people who are homeless.
Business owners are fed up, not necessarily with people who are unhoused but the city that ignores them, said Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association. “It’s a general issue of cleanliness and safety, that’s the No. 1 problem the city faces,” he said.
But Toro Castaño, one of the seven individual plaintiffs, said that without affordable housing, people who are unhoused like him are forced to move from place to place. “We’ll literally move across the street — in the other direction,” he said. “In a week we might move 14 times. Just from corner to corner to corner.”
In a court declaration, he said that in August 2020, he was given two hours to leave his tent, but the incident commander declared everything a fire hazard so city workers tossed all of his belongings into a dump truck. He lost his deceased mother’s wedding kimono, MacBook Pro laptop, a battery-powered heater and a bike worth $1,400.
The outreach team offered him a bed in a congregant shelter, but he declined it for fear of catching the coronavirus. Today, he’s in a hotel room paid for by the city.
Advocates say that many people who are homeless would rather stay outdoors than in shelters, where they risk contracting coronavirus, as well as encountering abuse or threats of violence. Homeless people who have pets, work night shifts, need mental health services, or have substance use disorders have a difficult time finding a shelter that will take them.
Shivering inside a crowded tent, Dylan Miner tried to rest upright. “You can gain your stuff back, but it takes a lot of work,” he said. During a recent sweep, he said city workers discarded his mattress and the wood pallets that keep him off the sidewalk — which was still wet from torrental rain .
Miner, 34, does carpentry, fixes bikes, and resells items he either buys or finds.
The city placed him in a downtown hotel for 10 months during the pandemic, but when the program shut down he was unable to find new housing. He is not part of the lawsuit, but expressed support for it.
Nobody is happy with the status quo response, Friedenbach said. She hopes the lawsuit will catalyze a “serious transformation” in how the city treats people who are unhoused.
“This is really connected to a bigger struggle for dignity,” she said. “And a bigger struggle for just a recognition of the humanity of folks who are too poor to afford rents.”