The price of the sweeps

Pub date October 9, 2007


The number of homeless individuals slapped with quality-of-life citations and the cost to the city of processing those citations reached new highs in the past 14 months, according to a study released by Religious Witness with Homeless People. San Francisco taxpayers have paid more than $2 million for more than 15,000 citations issued to people for crimes committed because they have no place to live.

"The quality-of-life citation … begins an extremely expensive process," said Michael Bien, a lawyer on the steering committee of Religious Witness, an interfaith activist group started in 1993 by Sister Bernie Galvin.

The study, released at an Oct. 4 press conference, was based on documents provided by various city departments. The authors collated the costs from the initial ticket issued by a cop through the entire court process, including the new price of prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office (see "The Crime of Being Homeless," 10/3/07).

The results are an update of a similar survey conducted last year (see "Homeless Disconnect," 9/5/06). Collectively, the two studies found that a total of 46,684 citations have been issued to homeless people, at a cost of more than $7.8 million, since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office.

But the mayor might not want you to know that. While Religious Witness was unveiling the study at a press conference in the South Light Court of City Hall, the mayor was hosting a simultaneous event about his heavily promoted Care Not Cash program, which provides homeless people with services and housing instead of the money they once received through the County Adult Assistance Program.

"What really bothers me," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the crowd gathered to hear Religious Witness, "is that we learn at the last minute that Mayor Newsom decides to have a press conference at the exact same time. To me, that couldn’t be more base and exhibitive of bad form … to try and upstage a press conference like this." He said the mayor’s administration should be working with organizations like Religious Witness, not competing against them.


Galvin expressed dismay that the mayor chose not to attend, on top of scheduling a competing press conference on the issue of homelessness. "We’ve never had a press conference where we didn’t have full press coverage," Galvin said.

"We’ve been trying to meet with Mayor Newsom since the day he took office," Bien said. "He hasn’t even given us the dignity of a response."

Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard, said he knew nothing about the event until he returned from his boss’s fete at the Pierre Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel on Jones Street that houses some Care Not Cash recipients. He denied any intention to detract attention from Religious Witness’s study. "I chose to do this a couple of weeks ago. There’s no deep, dark conspiracy," Ballard said. The day was chosen to announce that Care Not Cash had "reached a significant milestone of housing over 2,000 formerly homeless individuals," according to a press release.

Actually, the Care Not Cash program exceeded the 2,000 mark in August, according to statistics posted on the mayor’s Web site.

This is not the first time the mayor has scheduled a competing press conference. In June, on the same day the Board of Supervisors passed the city’s Community Choice Aggregation plan for more city-owned renewable energy, the mayor announced a new partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., to study tidal power (see "Turning the Tides," 6/27/07).

Religious Witness chose Oct. 4 to release the study results because it’s the Feast of St. Francis, a day celebrating the city’s patron saint, "a man known to have enormous compassion," Father Louie Vitale explained. "Does the mayor have compassion fatigue?" he wondered aloud.

The decisions about where a city spends money speak volumes about its values. "Every budget is a moral document," said John Fitzgerald, who enumerated many other uses to which the $2 million could have gone, from placing 1,028 people in three-month residential drug treatment to five new drop-in mental health clinics, 157 new caseworkers, or 10,230 preventable evictions.


Sup. Chris Daly, who attended but did not sponsor the Religious Witness press conference, said, "Not only is the use of police to target homeless people uncompassionate and inhumane, but it’s also ineffective." He recalled the first Religious Witness press conference, which denounced then-mayor Frank Jordan’s Matrix program, which teamed police officers with social workers to remove homeless people from Union Square and later Golden Gate Park. That program was deemed a failure because it criminalized homeless people and alienated them from helpful services by teaming outreach workers with law enforcement.

"We’re repeating a policy that we know is a failure," Daly said. "It’s a complete lack of compassion."

Recently Daly made public a memo he obtained from the mayor’s office through a public records request. The document outlined a new "downtown outreach plan," similar in sound and structure to Jordan’s Matrix. In a Sept. 28 Weekly Report to Newsom’s chief of staff, Phil Ginsburg, deputy chief of staff Julian Potter wrote, "The pilot program includes three separate teams of officers and social service staff that work a 15-block area" in two separate shifts patrolling the SoMa district. "In each of the three teams an officer will work in tandem with two social service representatives. Any person committing a crime (littering, encampment, trespassing, urinating, defecating, dumping, blocking sidewalk, intoxication, etc.) will be asked to cease the behavior and enter into services. If the individual resists services the officer will issue a citation."

Though it’s reminiscent of the approach that Jordan advocated, both the Operation Outreach team, made of police officers who typically interface with homeless people, and the Homeless Outreach Team, operated by the Department of Human Services, have denied they would accept the approach as Potter penned it.

"I have to be very emphatic," said Dr. Rajesh Parekh, director of HOT. "We are not going to be teamed up with police officers." Though police officers often refer HOT to specific people, he said recent news reports are inaccurate and "in the interest of our clients we’ve never done shoulder-to-shoulder work."

Lt. David Lazar, who heads the San Francisco Police Department’s Operation Outreach, agreed that his officers won’t walk in lockstep with the doctors and social workers who are offering services. But the line can get a little fuzzy: "We’re there at the same time, but we’re not necessarily together," he said. "We’re separate in our approach."

"Basically what the memo is proposing is illegally arresting people," Jenny Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told us.

Under state law, people can’t be taken into custody for infractions like urination and littering. But camping illegally can be considered a misdemeanor, and a citation could eventually lead to an arrest and a jury trial. Prosecuting and imprisoning people is far more expensive than providing shelter.

While some see the coupling of enforcement with services as a way to encourage more people to get help, others contend it’s not a simple equation.

"I think some people are not always able to say yes the first time we do outreach with them," Parekh said. "I’m hoping that as time goes on we’ll be able to persuade them. It’s an ongoing process. It’s not a one-time thing." He said more than half of the help offered is accepted in some form, but it can take as many as 20 attempts to win over what amounts to a small number of people who require persuasion.

Representatives from the Coalition on Homelessness on Oct. 4 witnessed the first of the SoMa sweeps, or "displacements," as they’re more kindly called, and confirmed that the cops and service providers had some distance between them.

"That’s what they did during the first month of Matrix," Daly said to the Guardian. "That will change over time."

In the meantime, the supervisor has reintroduced a $5 million allocation for supportive housing for homeless people that was passed by the board last spring but defunded by Newsom.