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San Francisco to start clearing some homeless encampments under new court guidance

San Francisco to once again start clearing certain homeless encampments on the streets
San Francisco to once again start clearing certain homeless encampments on the streets 03:19

SAN FRANCISCO -- City officials in San Francisco are preparing to resume sweeping homeless encampments after receiving the latest legal guidance amid a year-long battle over the issue playing out in court.

San Francisco officials say the majority of homeless people in encampments who are offered shelter routinely turn it down. But now, those individuals won't be allowed to just stay on the street under new court guidance in an ongoing federal case.  

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On any given day, residents say Willow Street off Van Ness is lined with trash and tents. 

"The folks who know Willow, it's gotten really infamous. And it's gotten really, really bad for two years, and it's extremely unsafe," said Ricky, a resident in the area, who declined to share his last name for privacy reasons. "We see a lot of electricity being stolen. We're seeing fires. We've seen vandalism." 

On Monday night, a neighbor also captured a rare drug bust on the street.

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Last month, Mayor London Breed posted a video on X of her visit to Willow Street, which showing workers cleaning it up. She said the goal was to get people into shelter and off the street. 

In a series of posts on X, the mayor wrote: "For this entire year, a federal injunction has limited the City from enforcing certain laws against those who refuse shelter on our streets. The good news: a recent clarification from the Court now sets a path forward for us." 

Residents said by the next day, the encampments returned.

"Things get better for a day or two, but then it goes back to normal," said Ricky.  

The Ninth Circuit provided clarity on who is considered "involuntarily homeless."

"If city workers are offering specific offers of available shelter to unhoused individuals and they refuse that offer of shelter, than the laws in the books can be enforced against them. Or if they have shelter otherwise or have the means to get shelter, they're not allowed to have their tent on the street. That's the gist of this," explained city attorney David Chiu.  

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Chiu said this development means that people should see fewer encampments over time and cleaner streets. 

Still, the lawsuit brought on by homeless advocates is still pending, and the ban on clearing encampments until there are more shelter beds than homeless people is still in place. But the mayor said there is now a path forward to enforce laws against those who are voluntarily homeless. 

"I'd say it's a really good thing that they clarified it. Because first of all, a lot of these people need a home. So being able to push them and tell them that there's a home for you would do them a lot of good," said Ricky. "But then the ones that do not want to be moved we believe...a lot of them create a lot of trouble."

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Since KPIX first reported on Willow Street nearly two years ago, a new encampment has popped up on Van Ness a block away at Eddy Street. Residents say it's only grown. 

"The residents - we were talking about it. Now there's no excuse, now at least some of it has to get cleaned up," added Ricky.  

Chiu said city departments are working out the logistics of forthcoming sweeps. 

Meanwhile, a trial date for the federal case has been set for late next year. 

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