In June, Teresa Sandoval woke up in her spot underneath the highway near 13th and Mission streets to the sounds of a San Francisco Public Works crew conducting another encampment sweep. Sandoval had already gone through this drill: Public Works, often accompanied by San Francisco Police Department officers, arrived unannounced and ordered her to pack up her belongings and leave. As she moved in her wheelchair gathering her stuff, Public Works staff removed her tent, grabbed her purse and deposited both into their dump truck. They also tossed away her prosthetic legs.
She never got them back.
Sandoval is not alone. Many other unsheltered San Franciscans report encounters with City workers who trashed their possessions—from tents, blankets, and other survival items to laptops, family mementos, and relatives’ cremated remains.
Now she, along with advocates for unhoused people, are suing the City of San Francisco, demanding a stop to its workers’ practices of seizing and destroying unsheltered folks’ property while repeatedly displacing them from public outdoor areas.
On September 27, seven unhoused residents and the Coalition on Homelessness—a San Francisco nonprofit that organizes homeless people and front line service providers to create permanent solutions to homelessness—filed suit, naming five City departments and two officials, including Mayor London Breed, as defendants.
These departments—Public Works, Police, Fire, Emergency Management, and Homelessness and Supportive Housing—also comprise a task force called the Healthy Streets Operating Center (HSOC), which is charged with responding to encampments.
The Coalition alleges that HSOC’s practice of repeatedly driving unsheltered San Franciscans away by threatening citations and arrest—and carrying out those threats—without making housing available is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is representing the plaintiffs. Lead attorney Zal Shroff said that while the City professes compassion toward unhoused folks, sweeping them away has become standard operating procedure.
“The objective of this suit is to uncover what the City says it’s doing about homelessness and the truth of what it’s actually doing about homelessness,” he said.
Shroff added that the City claims it is getting people off the streets by creating shelters and affordable housing, while at the same time saying “the people getting arrested are just ‘bad apples.’ That is patently false.”
San Francisco has 25 local ordinances prohibiting homelessness-related acts. They include voter-approved bans on sitting and sleeping on sidewalks and pitching tents on them. In a statement, the Lawyers’ Committee cited data from the first six months of 2021 showing that most of the time, the City had no shelter to offer to the 1,282 people evicted from public space, but that they still issued citations to and arrested 3,000 people for sleeping in public.
Public Works policy mandates that workers bag and tag property during sweeps and keep it in storage for 90 days, so that owners can retrieve it. Yet according to the lawsuit and its accompanying declarations, staff ignore its own rules. In the same six-month span, the department recorded only 195 items taken from sweeps, a dramatic undercount according to the reports of unhoused people victimized by sweeps.
Through interviews and videotaping, the organizing project Stolen Belonging documented the City’s methods and their impact on street dwellers. A former Public Works employee whose face and voice was obscured on tape said that his superiors never told him about the “bag and tag” policy when they assigned him to sweeps. Heather Lee was stonewalled by staff when she tried to retrieve her possessions at the storage yard. Before he died in 2020, artist Ronnie Goodman told the project that his attempts to reclaim his confiscated artwork proved futile—“We have no knowledge,” he recalled them saying. (Disclosure: The author of this story is a member of the “Stolen Belonging” project.)
The City Attorney’s office issued the following statement just after the filing: “The City is acutely focused on expanding our temporary shelter and permanent housing options to alleviate our homelessness crisis. Once we are served with the lawsuit, we will review the complaint and respond in court.”
This story originally appeared in Street Sheet.
TJ Johnston is the Assistant Editor of Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper.