Harm reduction in the park

Pub date August 7, 2007
WriterMarc Solomon
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Mayor Gavin Newsom’s moves to sweep homeless people out of Golden Gate Park have generated a lot of controversy — and a lot of people are missing the point.

I’m not so concerned about people sleeping in the park, just as I’m not so concerned about people sleeping on the sidewalks or the streets if there is no other place available, so long as they are just sleeping.

If folks just slept in the park, cleaned up after themselves, and moved on during the day, most of us would probably not notice. If my friends and I decided to take our tents and sleeping bags to the park and spend the night, there probably wouldn’t be any trace of our stay the next day.

My main concern is when ancillary conduct related to a poverty existence, such as defecation, urination, and the dispersal of syringes, becomes problematic. Is it worse when these things happen in Golden Gate Park or Corona Heights than it is when the same behavior occurs around Marshall Elementary in the middle of the Mission? The costs to police the park and the concrete public realm to the extent that one would see a difference in less feces and fewer syringes are probably as significant as the cost of constructing facilities to house and treat the homeless.

A feasible midrange political solution would be to adopt a broad front of harm-reduction policies designed to lighten the annoying footprints of the homeless on our public spaces without attacking them as human beings. Many are seriously messed up for an often overlapping variety of reasons. Outreach workers, instead of forcing homeless people through the criminal justice system, should offer appropriate technology disposal solutions for the most dangerous waste and trash as well as services to help with sanitation. I’d like for the city to initiate a "shit in a bag" program under which city workers would communicate to the homeless the importance of not befouling public space and provide plastic bags, toilet paper, and sanitizers for them to use.

Similarly, syringe-disposal systems are inherently safe, are designed to be unopenable without tools, and should be deployed in sites frequented by injection drug users.

It should be noted that nobody is noticing any more of these annoyances now than they were five years ago. The San Francisco Chronicle is simply tossing Newsom a softball for his reelection campaign so that he can appear tough on crime for his base voters (as if that is going to be an issue this year). It’s not cost-effective to deploy the San Francisco police to deal with homelessness. It’s also not cost-effective for the city to make up for the abdication by the state and federal governments of their responsibility to deal with the mentally ill and drug abusers.

So we can either complain or attempt another approach.<\!s>*

Marc Salomon

Marc Salomon is a member of the San Francisco Green Party County Council.