SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Merchants, residents and a renowned law school sued San Francisco in federal court Monday, claiming the city has for too long treated the notorious Tenderloin neighborhood as a “containment zone” for homelessness and illegal activity, making the area unlivable for some 20,000 residents.
“The Tenderloin, always a community of tolerance and compassion, is now blighted; its sidewalks are unsanitary, unsafe, and often impassable,” the 38-page complaint states. “Open-air drug sales and other criminal activity, plus crowds of drug users and sidewalk-blocking tents, pervade and threaten the health and lives of all of the Tenderloin’s residents.”
The approximately 50-block section in the heart of San Francisco has long been a source of criticism over the perceived lack of adequate policing and cleanliness compared to other parts of the city. The federal lawsuit says those already poor conditions have been exacerbated by the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
The number of tents and makeshift shelters on sidewalks in the Tenderloin has grown from 153 in early March to 391 on May 1, according to a count by the nonprofit Urban Alchemy cited in the complaint.
“Many of the people camping on and occupying the sidewalks do not adhere to social distancing rules for the pandemic,” the complaint states. “They congregate in large groups in close proximity, without masks; they do not make way for other people who live and work in the Tenderloin who are trying to use the sidewalks; they sometimes display hostile and threatening behavior.”
San Francisco’s homeless population increased 17% between 2017 and 2019. The city has an estimated 8,000 or more homeless residents. District 6, where the Tenderloin is located, had 3,659 homeless residents, by far the largest portion in the city, according to San Francisco’s 2019 point-in-time survey.
Addressing the lawsuit at a video press conference Monday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed called it “unfortunate” that people chose to file suit instead of work with the city. She said the city is drafting a detailed block-by-block plan to address problems in the Tenderloin. She also noted that many homeless people in the Tenderloin treat city workers who try to help them with disrespect, sometimes lunging or spitting at them.
“They’re out there every single day, especially in the Tenderloin, picking up needles, cleaning up after grown-up people, people who are adults who should be cleaning up after themselves,” Breed said. “I get that everyone wants to see something different, but we’re not housekeepers. We’re not babysitters, but we’re being treated that way by people who have some challenges and difficulties and some people who are just downright defiant. So let’s give some people out there who are putting their lives on the line some credit for the work they do despite the disrespect they get when they’re out there every day.”
The lawsuit also notes the Tenderloin is home to 3,000 children and has the highest per capita concentration of children compared to all other city neighborhoods. Children are “afraid even to walk outside” of one apartment building, according to the complaint.
Plaintiffs include two residents, one single-room occupancy building owner, one business owner, the Tenderloin Merchants Association and University of California Hastings College of the Law, which is located in the neighborhood.
The complaint cites a statement by an unnamed student who declined admission to the distinguished university this year, stating, “I witnessed crime right outside the entrance when I visited. While I appreciate the growth of not living in a bubble, I just didn't feel safe and was more stressed than I wanted to be walking back to my car.”
Federal judges may also be familiar with the neighborhood’s infamous reputation, as the Northern District of California federal courthouse is located just one block away from the college’s law library.
“Litter and used needles are found every day around the Hastings parking garage,” the complaint states. “Human feces and urine are found in the doorways. Staff have to escort the homeless out of the garage regularly. Thieves break into cars.”
The plaintiffs say the city’s persistent approach of treating the Tenderloin as a “repository for its homeless population” increases the risk of Covid-19 infection, interferes with property rights, causes a loss of business and educational opportunities, violates due process and equal protection rights, and interferes with the constitutional right to pursue happiness.
The plaintiffs seek a federal court injunction to remedy the city’s alleged violations of law. They are represented by Michael Kelly of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in San Francisco.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said the city’s Emergency Operations Center has developed a detailed draft plan to address the situation in the Tenderloin, including a block-by-block analysis.
“The city is gathering community feedback on the plan today (Monday, May 4),” Cote said. “It is unfortunate that UC Hastings chose to go to court rather than allow that community process to proceed and produce a final plan, which will be issued this week. The Emergency Operations Center will continue to finalize the plan, and we invite these plaintiffs to join their neighbors and participate in that process."
On Wednesday, the city released its plan to address homelessness and illegal drug activity in the Tenderloin. The plan calls for increased police patrols and offering “safe sleeping alternatives” to unsheltered people. The city intends to initially focus on 13 blocks identified as most in need of attention.
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