Why I oppose closing our parks

Pub date November 5, 2013
WriterLondon Breed

OPINION I have great respect for Recreation & Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, my colleague Sup. Scott Wiener, and my constituents and friends who support the parks closure legislation. I certainly share their concerns about damage to our parks. But I do not think this law is the appropriate means to address it.

I have six fundamental problems with the legislation.

My first concern is the impact this could have on our neighborhoods. There are an estimated 7,350 homeless youth and adults in San Francisco. Many find a shelter bed; some wind up in jail or a hospital. Over 4,300 people, though, have nowhere to sleep.

As the supervisor for District 5, it would be irresponsible for me not to think about this, not to consider what will happen if homeless people are evicted from the parks and wind up sleeping on the doorsteps of my constituents in the Haight, Inner Sunset, or Buena Vista. This would be unjust for the homeless and worse for the neighborhoods.

Second, we have an enforcement problem, not a regulation problem. The Park Code already prohibits: camping, sleeping between 8pm-8am, dumping, drinking (in most parks), being under the influence, damaging the parks, or making loud, “unreasonable” noises.

Unfortunately, at night there are only two or three park patrol officers on the beat for all 220 parks across 3,500 acres.

We can’t enforce the codes we have. Rather than adding a broad, redundant code, I would like targeted improvements to the codes and their enforcement.

Third, it could cost more to enforce this law than we would actually save. Vandalism is distributed all over the park system and does not all occur between midnight and 5am. A dramatic increase in officers could decrease vandalism, but that would cost more than any savings realized.

Fourth, I am sympathetic to the almost-Libertarian argument made by some constituents that: “My tax dollars pay for those parks and if I want to use them at 4am, that is my prerogative.”

Firefighters and others who work late shifts should be allowed to walk their dogs in the park when they get off work. Whenever I raise this point, I am told by the law’s supporters, “Oh it won’t be enforced against them.”

This is exactly the problem, and my fifth concern — that this law will be selectively enforced. If it’s not intended to target the homeless, the firefighter, or the well-groomed neighbor, who is the law designed to target? Suspicious looking people? Teenagers? Young men in hooded sweatshirts?

Lastly, I think there are perfectly legitimate reasons to use the parks at night, and I don’t think our government should be admonishing us otherwise.

Acts can be criminal. Vandalism, dumping, drug use — those are acts. I am not comfortable preemptively criminalizing a person’s presence, or everyone’s presence, in order to deter the few who commit those acts. I am not comfortable limiting everyone’s freedom in order to deter those who abuse that freedom.

But frankly, I am also not comfortable with how politically charged the issue of homelessness has become in San Francisco. Whether this particular law passes or fails, 7,350 people will wake up tomorrow morning not knowing where they will sleep tomorrow night.

We must be creative, unconventional. For example, we could repurpose fallow city buildings as temporary shelters. Would this idea be received as an opportunity or an insult? I hope the former, but I suspect the latter.

We have a political climate in this city which, for a variety of reasons, seems to default to the status quo on homelessness. Well, we need change. We need to acknowledge that not every call for service is a “handout,” nor every call for enforcement a “criminalization.”

Relegating 4,300 people to a cold spot of concrete or grass every night is not compassion; working creatively to change it is not malice. It is leadership. And it is exactly what we need.

London Breed is the District 5 supervisor. The board was scheduled to make its first of two votes on Wiener’s legislation Nov. 5 after our press time. Visit www.sfbg.com/politics for the latest.