Dear UC Law SF Community,
As you all know, on May 4 of this year, UC Law SF and five Tenderloin-based co-plaintiffs sued the City and County of San Francisco over the dangerous conditions on the sidewalks and in the doorways of our neighborhood. The situation in the Tenderloin was a public health menace, and the lives of the unhoused were at significant risk due to COVID-19. Tents were piled one on top of the other, so there was no ability for housed or unhoused residents to socially distance themselves from one another; the unhoused did not have the means to wash their hands regularly, crowds of open-air drug dealers and their customers blocked sidewalks, and needles, feces and trash littered the streets. Conditions had gotten to a point where nobody could argue that the status quo was healthy for anyone in the neighborhood.
From the start, the plaintiffs believed that we shared the Mayor’s goal of protecting both the housed and unhoused residents of the Tenderloin. And this has turned out to be the case, as evidenced by our ability to reach a quick settlement agreement on June 11.
I want to thank all of the UC Law SF community members who reached out to offer words of encouragement since filing the lawsuit, as well as with questions or concerns you had about the litigation, particularly since reaching a settlement agreement. I take all of your thoughts, guidance, and concerns to heart. One thing that has been evident in my 33+ years at UC Law SF is that we are not merely a law school that happens to be located in the Tenderloin. We lead longstanding efforts as members of the community, as demonstrated by the faculty and students engaged in our clinical programs, our staff who sit on neighborhood committees, and countless volunteers who give their time to a variety of efforts. We are active members of the Tenderloin and are committed to ensuring that we and our neighbors have a healthy and vibrant community in which to live, work, and attend school.
Today, as a result of the litigation and settlement, the walkways are clearer, and the housed and unhoused residents of the Tenderloin are safer. Over 200 tents have been moved from sidewalks and their residents have been provided with hotel rooms or safe-sleeping sites that offer vast improvement over the status quo.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the City will move 100 more tents and their occupants by July 20, with the City agreeing to use “all reasonable efforts” to “permanently” eliminate tents from the sidewalks thereafter. By doing as well as it’s done—and as quickly as it’s done it—the City has demonstrated without doubt that the reasonable steps the City has promised can quickly and permanently result in the Tenderloin being tent-free and its unhoused residents offered improved alternatives to living on sidewalks.
In another step forward, the Mayor has established a high-level working group to renew efforts to free the Tenderloin from the consequences of open-air drug dealing and associated crime. Along with the Mayor, I will sit on the working group and we all agree it will be important to engage experienced leaders from Tenderloin organizations in its efforts.
I am aware that some organizations that advocate for the unhoused opposed the lawsuit and now oppose the settlement agreement. I want to confirm here that, from the outset, we shared their immediate goals of supporting the unhoused residents with dignity and respect, helping them access hotel rooms, and working with the City to create safe sleeping sites. We also share the long-term goal of creating a path to permanent housing for these San Francisco residents.
In their court papers and public statements, these advocates assert that their opposition is based on an assortment of fears. I can understand their apprehension. These fears, however, are not founded on what is happening in fact. Their fears, and the actual facts of the matter, follow:
FEAR: The unhoused will be “swept” off the streets by police and not provided adequate alternative shelter.
FACT: The plaintiffs and I agree that the unhoused should be treated with respect and dignity and do not wish for the police to lead these efforts or see any need for them to do so. On the contrary, the settlement expressly protects the rights of unhoused people being relocated from the streets. City agencies dedicated to public works, health, and homelessness have led these efforts. We have been keenly observing the City’s hard work to place unhoused people in hotel rooms and safe sleeping sites. We have also been heartened to see the time and care shown by City employees who, in some cases, spend hours in conversation with individuals to help them toward better options than sleeping on the sidewalk.
FEAR: The City’s actions amount to “criminalizing” homelessness.
FACT: The plaintiffs and I have no interest in criminalizing homeless people, nor does the settlement do so. It ensures the homeless have access to better alternatives than their current conditions. We expect and are witnessing that the unhoused are being treated with dignity and respect and, in all cases, being provided adequate alternatives.
FEAR: Moving unhoused people from their encampments could exacerbate COVID-19 risk, as indicated by CDC guidelines.
FACT: CDC guidelines state that “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” In the Tenderloin, most of the residents in tents were not socially distancing or wearing masks, and they regularly congregated in large groups. Leaving the encampments where they were was a recipe for spreading the virus, not containing it. In any case, individual housing is being made available, as the CDC recommends. And safe camping sites provided by the City provide for the necessary spacing between tents and improved facilities for hygiene over those available on neighborhood sidewalks.
FEAR: The current effort to “clear the streets of the Tenderloin” constitutes illegal discrimination because the homeless are primarily people of color.
FACT: The majority of the Tenderloin’s unhoused individuals are people of color, and that is also true of the neighborhood’s housed residents, many of whom are children, elderly, or disabled. In fact, the Tenderloin has the highest concentration of children of any neighborhood in San Francisco. There is no justice in making the sidewalks of one of San Francisco’s most low-income and majority people of color neighborhoods the de facto location for unsafe homeless encampments. Both the housed and unhoused residents of the Tenderloin deserve to improve their living situation and this settlement offers that.
The settlement has likely already prevented more people in the Tenderloin from being infected with COVID-19, almost certainly saving lives. Housed residents can more safely leave their homes and walk the streets. This is no small improvement. I have heard from numerous residents that, until now, many children in the Tenderloin had not left their homes since the start of the pandemic as their families have been in constant fear. Moreover, the unhoused are being provided hotel rooms and safe shelter, which will allow for an increased likelihood of receiving additional supports needed to transition into housing security. This is what homeless advocates have historically sought and what the settlement is helping to achieve.
The settlement is just the start of what will be a long-term process toward more permanent and equitable outcomes for housed and unhoused people alike. It will take a concerted effort by all well-meaning individuals and organizations to achieve this objective.
UC Law SF students, staff, and faculty consider the Tenderloin to be our home, and, in furtherance of our public service mission, have long participated in neighborhood committees and working groups. We have led efforts to support the needs of the entire community over many decades. I am so grateful for the partnerships from all the community organizations that have supported our efforts and would welcome an opportunity to do the same with the homeless advocates who have expressed their concerns. UC Law SF representatives participate in multiple community conversations every week, and will continue to do so with dedication and openness. We look forward to partnering with advocacy organizations and the City of San Francisco to support our neighbors however we can.
David L. Faigman
Chancellor and Dean
John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor of Law
University of California Hastings College of the Law