Five years ago in San Francisco, a federal appeals court upended homeless policy in California and across the West. In a 2018 ruling against the city of Boise, Idaho, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that cities could not enforce local laws against outdoor camping if they didn’t offer enough shelter beds for people living on the street.
Since then, the ruling in that case, Martin v. Boise, has made it exceptionally difficult for cities to clear tent encampments in the nine states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction. The decision has spurred state and local governments to address homelessness in new ways.
But billions of dollars in government spending have not yet solved the problem. And as tent cities have grown, political pushback has intensified, even in cities dominated by liberal voters. Which brings us to San Francisco again.
In recent weeks, a related legal battle — the latest in a series — has led to an uproar, to the point that Mayor London Breed of San Francisco shouted about dead bodies at a rally last month outside the federal courthouse as advocates for the homeless demonstrated nearby.
Even some San Franciscans are confused by the furor. Here are some frequently asked questions about the situation.
What’s this about?
The Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy organization, filed a federal lawsuit a year ago, claiming that San Francisco’s enforcement of public camping laws was unconstitutional because the number of people sleeping unsheltered — nearly 4,400 each night, according to the most recent head count — far exceeded the number of available shelter beds. In December, a federal judge issued an emergency order temporarily banning the enforcement of city laws against tent camps, raising the stakes as winter set in.
What do the two sides say?
San Francisco officials say the city’s homeless situation is fundamentally different from Boise’s. The city has spent billions of dollars on housing and services for homeless people, adding thousands of shelter spots and housing units. But the city says that many campers refuse to sleep in the available beds. Local laws making it illegal to sleep outdoors apply only during about four hours of the day, not around the clock.
Advocates for homeless San Franciscans say that the city has made little real effort to provide adequate shelter, and instead has criminalized homelessness. The battle comes as the cost of living in California continues to rise and as affordable housing remains scarce.
Why has the rhetoric intensified now?
The city asked the Ninth Circuit this summer to modify the federal judge’s temporary order. As a three-judge panel heard arguments in San Francisco one day in late August, city officials and housing advocates held dueling protests outside.
Breed, who had just come from a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an Ikea store in a commercially fragile part of the city, called it “inhumane” not to move people out of tent camps. “We have found dead bodies,” she shouted. “We have found a dead baby in these tents.”
The same day, Gov. Gavin Newsom — a former mayor of San Francisco — announced that the state was sending cities and counties an extra $38 million to “clean up encampments,” and he accused the courts of “creating costly delays.”
How did tech executives get involved?
Two days later, on X, the San Francisco-based social media site formerly known as Twitter, Elon Musk and other tech figures suggested a boycott of the law firm Latham & Watkins, based in Los Angeles, whose lawyers have been representing homeless plaintiffs pro bono. Newsom, who is not usually a Musk bedfellow, later said on X that Musk “has touched on a key issue” and that the federal courts were the problem.
A liberal Democrat who is widely considered to be a 2028 presidential contender, the governor told The San Francisco Chronicle that he once became so frustrated with legal decisions protecting encampments that he considered letting the judiciary deal directly with complaints from the public. “I literally was talking about putting a big sign with the judge’s phone number saying, ‘Call the judge’,” he said.
Anthony York, a Newsom spokesman, compared the governor’s current stance to his past criticism of conservative federal judges who have sought to overrule gun controls in California — another group of “ideologues” whose rulings threatened public safety.
What’s the latest?
It is unclear when the Ninth Circuit will rule on the city’s request to modify the sweep injunction. The next written arguments are due later this month, and a hearing is unlikely to be held before then. Still, the outcry, coming as it has even from Democrats like Breed and Newsom, is a sign that political pressure is mounting for a reconsideration of the case law that has sprouted from the Boise decision.
Breed is fighting for re-election in 2024, and her poll numbers have been flagging; political rivals see a ripe opportunity to defeat her. Critics on each end of the political spectrum have accused Breed and Newsom of trying to pass the buck for the homelessness problem to courts.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Joe Macpherson:
“One of the places we like to visit during a fishing trip to the Delta is Locke, also known as Locke Historic District, an unincorporated community in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta off River Road. The 14-acre town was first developed between 1893 and 1915 as a Chinese community. There are a few restaurants, gardens, shops, museums, and Strange Cargo, a funky old book store, if open, is well worth a visit.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
While the Strokes have become a sort of shorthand for New York’s early 2000s downtown rock scene, on the opposite coast, in Southern California, the group is enjoying a fresh wave of fandom that is distinctly Californian.
Juicebox, Southern California’s leading Strokes tribute band, which draws enthusiastic multigenerational crowds, is leading something of a West Coast resurgence for the Strokes. The group’s fans, as well as most of its members, are predominantly Latino.
As Eric Ducker wrote in The New York Times last week, the Strokes themselves have a major presence in Latin America, and it follows that Los Angeles, where more than 4.9 million people identify as Hispanic or Latino, should have many Latino Strokes fans. But the band’s specific appeal among first-generation Americans, Ducker writes, is also tied to its history of self-invention, an appealing message for those with complicated feelings about their identifies and which culture they belong to.
“As people have moved away or they’ve aged out of certain subcultures or music scenes, it does seem like in Los Angeles, Latinos have moved in to take the reins,” José G. Anguiano, a professor of Latina/o studies, said of the resurgence. “What’s really cool is they’re taking the reins, not just in terms of being fans, but also fronting these tribute bands and producing their own music. They’re fully participating in every sense in these subcultures.”