UPDATED: Board narrowly approves closing city parks at night

Pub date November 5, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors today narrowly approved Sup. Scott Wiener’s legislation to close parks and large plazas from midnight to 5am, a measure that Wiener said was about preventing vandalism but which progressive activists called an attack on the homeless.

The vote was 6-5, with Sups. John Avalos, London Breed, David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar voting against the proposal. The key swing votes in the decision were Breed — who wrote an op-ed for this week’s Guardian (posting soon) explaining her position — and Sup. Norman Yee, who was elected last year in Dist. 7 with progressive support.

To address the homeless issue, Kim asked for an amendment to make an exception for sleeping in the parks. Without the amendment, “we are criminalizing poverty and issuing fines people will never pay, and not getting the results we wanted,” she said. 

Hundreds of homeless lay their heads to rest in the parks of San Francisco every night as the city struggles to meet housing demand, which is already illegal under city law. Kim’s amendment says those sleeping in parks are to be cited under previously existing codes against sleeping in parks and not double-fined under this ordinance. Wiener supported the amendment and it was inserted into the legislation, although that didn’t end the debate over the legislation or win over its main opponents.

As the legislation was first introduced, Wiener made the argument he’s made many times before. Closing the parks at night is about vandalism, he said. 

“We need to establish a clear baseline that establishes hours for the park to combat vandalism and dumping,” Sup. Scott Wiener told the board. He made the case that most major cities in the U.S. have laws closing their parks and playgrounds at night, and that even New York City had them on the books.

Wiener also directly and flatly denied that his legislation was an attack on the homeless. 

“If the police wanted to remove people sleeping and camping in parks, they already have the tools to do that. This legislation does not give them those tools beyond what they have,” he said. 

But opponents of the measure, who have been organizing against it for weeks, said it will target the homeless and be selectively enforced. As Mar said at the hearing, “I think this is a really mean-spirited ordinance.”

And that’s when the avalanche of arguments began. Campos, Mar, Avalos, and Kim all  passionately defended the homeless that sleep in the parks. But no one brought more facts to the argument than Breed.

“We have 1,339 shelter beds and 6,000 people in San Francisco with nowhere to sleep,” she said. “I’ve been told again and again this will not target the homeless. But if it doesn’t target the homeless or the investment banker or the firefighter, who will this law target? Suspicious looking people in hoods? Teenagers?” 

The room took on a chill as she evoked echoes of Trayvon Martin and others who have been selectively targeted in the name of justice. Enforcement was her next bone of contention. There are only a handful of park police, often only two, that patrol over 220 parks in San Francisco, she said. 

If the ordinance is supposed to combat vandalism, it doesn’t even do that effectively, she said to the board: “We don’t have a legislative problem, we have an enforcement problem.”

To that end, Yee amended Wiener’s proposal to identify more funding for the park police. Everyone on all sides of the argument acknowledged that two to three officers to cover over 4,000 acres of San Francisco parks was woefully inadequate. 

It’s still unclear where that funding will come from, and how much it will be. 

After the meeting the Guardian asked Police Chief Greg Suhr, who was present for the meeting, if the homeless would be targeted under the ordinance.

“We’re not that Police Department,” he said. But he also said the controversial Sit/Lie Ordinance doesn’t target homeless people either, a claim that homeless advocates would dispute. “We’re a reasonable suspicion detention department.” 

An audio interview with Police Chief Greg Suhr just after the park closure legislation passed, where we asked Suhr, “Will the homeless be targeted?”

Tom Temprano, president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, disagreed. 

“I think that anyone who tells you the homeless will not be targeted in legislation that closes our parks at night are lying to you. There’s no other way to read this legislation,” he said. Temprano was one of the lead organizers of the sleep-in protest of the ordinance, which we previously covered.

When we asked if the ordinance would spur increased law enforcement in the parks, Suhr referred us elsewhere. 

“I leave the deployments to the station captains… certainly [the captains] have a pulse on what’s going on in the parks,” he said. 

So we called Captain Greg Corrales at Park Station, which oversees one of the most populous sections of Golden Gate Park, filled to the brim with campers. Corrales told us he didn’t imagine this ordinance would spur him to increase patrols or enforcement.

“There will not be more officers. The hours of the park have been posted on signs in the park, and past closing time people were cited for failure to abide by the signs,” he said. 

They cite 10-20 people for sleeping in the park per night, he said. As Kim noted, often these don’t lead to any prosecutions at all. 

But as for vandalism, Corrales said that there was recently a vandal throwing rocks through the windows of the Conservatory of Flowers and McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park. Would the ordinance help curb people from that kind of behavior?

“We’re already enforcing park closure,” he said. “It really doesn’t have much impact on us.”