Stop the homeless sweeps

Pub date October 9, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Sister Bernie Galvin and Religious Witness with Homeless People held a press conference Oct. 4 to release some remarkable data: since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office, San Francisco has issued 46,684 citations to homeless people, mostly for what are known as quality-of-life crimes. That’s cost the taxpayers $7.8 million.

Unfortunately, almost no news media showed up — the mayor, it turns out, somehow scheduled his press conference on homelessness at exactly the same time. As Amanda Witherell reports on page 15, Newsom’s staff say it’s all a coincidence — but it reflects how this administration is increasingly treating homeless issues.

Newsom, with the assistance of District Attorney Kamala Harris, is shifting the city back to a model that treats homelessness and poverty as crimes. But years of evidence prove that approach doesn’t work.

Newsom’s plan, outlined in a memo that Sup. Chris Daly made public last week, involves sending a team of social service and outreach workers through the Tenderloin with police officers. Now the cops and the social workers are saying they won’t patrol together, but the message and the impact are the same: people who commit the sorts of offenses that are almost inevitable when you don’t have a place to live — like sleeping on the streets and panhandling — will increasingly be dragged into the criminal justice system.

Frank Jordan, a former police chief, tried that when he was mayor in the early 1990s; he called the program Matrix, and it was an utter failure. The reason is obvious: most homeless people can’t pay the fines for these violations. So either the citation process is a waste of everyone’s time or, if the city pursues the nonpayment and piles on more and more citations, it winds up creating a criminal record for someone who already is going to have trouble finding work. The promise of services implied by the social workers’ involvement in Newsom’s plan means nothing if services aren’t there — and the city still can’t offer, say, substance-abuse treatment on demand or enough housing for all of the people who need it.

Yet despite all the evidence, Harris has now assigned a full-time staffer to do nothing but prosecute these low-level offenses. She and Newsom both say they want to help people use services — but the only service the DA’s Office offers to homeless people who wind up in court is a handout, a single-page list of referrals.

San Francisco has been down this road so many times before that it’s infuriating. Criminalizing homeless people is not only wrong; it’s expensive, inefficient, foolish, and morally offensive. It also clogs the courts and takes the cops even further away from working on serious crimes.

Daly says he’s going to reintroduce his measure allocating an additional $5 million for housing for homeless people. That’s a good move, of course. But the supervisors ought to think about something else: if Harris, Newsom, and the cops want to persist in counterproductive and cruel homeless sweeps, perhaps the supervisors should move to cut funding to those departments by a total of, say, $7.8 million. 2