SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- A federal judge on Monday denied the City of San Luis Obispo's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the city by five homeless people.
Pamela Langley, Renee Askew, Aaron Stinnet, Edward Marquez, Christina Malmen and nonprofit Hope's Village of SLO filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Central District of California Court against the city in the winter of 2021.
They’re accusing the city of violating their constitutional rights by enforcing ordinances that essentially criminalize homelessness and implement a widespread practice of seizing and destroying homeless people's belongings, according to court records.
The city filed a 24-page motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Dec. 8, stating that the complaint lacks standing and should be dismissed.
However, Federal Judge Cormac J. Carney rejected the city's motion to dismiss on Monday and directed the city to file an answer to the complaint by Feb. 22.
The complaint alleges that a decades-old affordable housing and shelter shortage in the city has left many residents unhoused, forcing them to use tents, public parks, and open spaces for shelter, among other public areas.
The complaint went on to state that although a 2019 survey identified over 480 homeless people in the city, – 326 of whom were unsheltered – the city's only homeless shelter houses 124 people at full capacity.
Despite the shortage, the city has "continued to strictly enforce ordinances to prevent unhoused residents from sheltering in the city's open spaces and streets, effectively criminalizing homelessness," Cormac wrote in his denial of the motion.
The city issued over 300 criminal and administrative citations punishing people for violating those ordinances between May 2018 and June 2021, with a "substantial majority" of the citations issued to unhoused individuals, Cormac said.
Cormoc also noted that the city continued to clear homeless encampments in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance urging local governments to not clear encampments.
The City of San Luis Obispo said on Thursday that it had hoped the lawsuit would be dismissed at an early stage so that resources can be fully dedicated to delivering solutions, "rather than defending our community against legal action."
“Being homeless is not a crime in San Luis Obispo. We share the concerns about the growing homelessness crisis in California, but we believe that we all need to work together to solve the problem,” said City Attorney Christine Dietrick.
"Instead of criminalizing homelessness, our city has spent millions of dollars and untold time and energy on innovative solutions to address the problem within our city limits. We will continue to defend our community’s right to enforce our own conduct-related laws for the health, safety and welfare of our entire community."
The city said it remains confident that the facts will support its compliance with the law as the case proceeds.