A federal judge has denied the City of San Luis Obispo’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by five unhoused community members as well as a local nonprofit, Hope’s Village of SLO.
Federal judge Cormac Carney ruled on Wednesday that the case should go forward. The plaintiffs allege the city has disproportionately dealt with the unhoused by strictly enforcing ordinances to prevent people from sheltering in public spaces such as city streets and parks.
“The City may not, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, criminalize resting outside on public property when there is insufficient sleeping space practically available in any shelter,” the ruling states. “Plaintiffs plausibly allege that [the City] has done so.”
Many of the relocation efforts towards the unhoused are cited in the original claim against the City as being ill advised by the CDC considering the state of the COVID-19.
“The purpose behind cleanouts is not to displace people. It’s truly for the safety of people living in encampments and I know that’s hard to kind of wrap minds around,” Kelsey Nocket, the city’s homelessness response manager, said in a November interview with Mustang News.
Attorney for the plaintiffs Frank Kopcinksi said he had fully expected to go to the upcoming hearing prior to the dismissal.
“We were not familiar with this judge so we weren’t sure how he was going to rule,” Kopcinski said.
“This lawsuit is especially disheartening because the City is doing more now than ever before to facilitate more housing options in SLO,” spokesperson Whitney Szentesi said on behalf of the City prior to the denial.
She pointed to city efforts to help people find shelter and services, and their work with organizations that try to prevent homelessness.
“Our goal is to prevent homelessness and reduce chronic homelessness,” Szentesi said. “We do that by enforcing our laws with compassion to achieve equity, public safety and environmental protection. We do not believe it is an act of compassion to defend the right to live outdoors in unsafe and unhealthy conditions in a community where help is available.”
Although the city plans an expansion of its current shelter to extend its capacity by 25%, the lawsuit holds that there is not enough current space to accommodate all those who need housing.
The plaintiffs note that the city’s current shelter, 40 Prado, can house no more than 124 individuals out of the 326 counted as unhoused in the city in 2019.
“Since the Point-in-Time count is generally regarded as an undercount, the gap between 40 Prado’s capacity and the number of homeless individuals in the City is likely far greater,” the lawsuit states.
This leaves no option for the unhoused but public spaces, the plaintiffs say. The case also alleges that “the City violates the Fourth Amendment and the California constitution by seizing and destroying unhoused people’s personal property.”
In line with this, judge Carney reiterates this in the denial of the Cities dismissal saying that, “the City has seized and destroyed the possessions that homeless people need for protecting privacy and survival.”
“We have tried for 10 years to get more help for our homeless people who have little or no income or chance of getting housing. We have tried to persuade the City to follow the law,” Hope’s Village SLO Director Becky Jorgensen said after hearing the ruling. “Someone has to break the chain. Let it be us.”