Tents line the sidewalk near the Tenderloin Community Garden at Larkin and McAllister streets in the Tenderloin in June. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisors fear Tenderloin lawsuit settlement sets bad precedent

UC Hastings case pushed city to move more homeless residents into hotels or shelters

Supervisors on Tuesday held off on approving a settlement of a lawsuit with the University of California, Hastings over homelessness in the Tenderloin, for fear of the precedent it could set for other lawsuits.

Though many of the agreements in the settlement have been fulfilled, supervisors grappled with the breakdown in governance between branches before the suit was filed in May and the precedent it could set as other neighborhood suits on homelessness proceed.

UC Hastings, with other merchants and Tenderloin residents, filed suit in May over increased encampments due to the pandemic. The City attributed the number of tents in the Tenderloin tripling to more than 400 as a result of reduced capacity at homeless shelters to account for social distancing.

Mayor London Breed and UC Hastings announced the settlement in June, with The City agreeing to move people in 300 tents — about 70 percent of those counted at the time — to a hotel room or city-sanctioned sleeping site. Agreements were also made to prevent more tents from springing up and to turn to enforcement if people living in tents would not accept an offer to relocate.

“It seems the best thing to do is to approve this settlement,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin. “I took the advice of our attorney in terms of what liability we might have and the risks involved.”

While some supervisors acknowledged that the situation greatly improved, they expressed frustration with The City’s executive branch for ignoring legislation passed before the lawsuit was filed that called for placing unhoused residents in hotel rooms.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation in April requiring The City to procure 8,250 hotel rooms for homeless residents, which Breed countered as unrealistic. Supervisor Hilary Ronen said she was impressed that changes were actually made, but noted they were changes that the Board of Supervisors could not enforce.

“Quite frankly, it’s been the only impetus I’ve seen work in this pandemic to get substantial change in conditions in a neighborhood and to do so while treating the unhoused population with compassion,” Ronen said. “Unless there is meaningful action in neighborhoods where conditions are abysmal — like the Mission District, like the Tenderloin, like Bayview, like parts of the Castro, like parts of Haight — these lawsuits are going to continue to be on our agenda. The cost to our city will be enormous.”

The UC Hastings lawsuit was followed later in May by another lawsuit from some Haight residents and business owners over an emergency homeless camping facility on the site of a former McDonald’s. The site ultimately opened.

At least two other similar lawsuits have reportedly been filed, by restaurants in the mid-Market area and by several building owners in the Tenderloin.

Ronen and Supervisor Dean Preston also expressed discomfort with the lack of unhoused voices and their advocates in moving forward with a suit. Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, added that without community input, the suit failed to push for proper solutions like additional hotel rooms.

“It benefits housed and unhoused residents immensely when actual solutions are put forward while fake solutions like enforcement hurt housed and unhoused residents alike,” Friedenbach said. “Instead they pushed for clearing streets of tents to make their new housing development attractive and took credit for hotel rooms that community fought for and were already lined up before settlement was in play.”

While some supervisors worried over the settlement providing a blueprint for other residents with means to sue The City, not approving it would bring other consequences.

”The case will remain open and parties will continue in litigation,” said Anne Pearson, deputy city attorney. “It will not be resolved by the settlement agreed by the parties and it will be left to the courts.”

A vote on the settlement was ultimately postponed to Aug. 18.

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