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Thursday, June 18, 2015

San Francisco's Homeless Policies Have Been a $1.5 Billion Failure

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2015 at 11:10 AM

click to enlarge MICHAEL YAN/FLICKR
  • Michael Yan/Flickr
A major new report from the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness investigates how criminalizing homelessness in San Francisco has only exacerbated the crisis. Much like America’s War on Drugs, the city’s crackdown on homelessness has been a costly failure, leaving in its wake people who feel victimized by the very system that’s supposed to help them.

The report’s title, “Punishing the Poorest,” neatly sums up city policy. “Since 1981, San Francisco has passed more local measures to criminalize sleeping, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces than any other city in California,” the report states. In fact, San Francisco has 23 state and municipal anti-homeless laws on the book; the average number for other California cities is nine.

What has been the outcome of all this progressive lawmaking? Walk any street downtown and you’ll see the answer, but the empirical data is sobering to say the least.

As the report notes, the city has shelled out $1.5 billion on homeless services over the past decade, yet there’s still only one shelter bed for every six homeless people. Quality of life laws — those that penalize sitting or sleeping in public, among other “nuisances” — have led to mass citations and incarceration. The report finds that between October 2006 and March 2014, the SFPD issued 51,757 citations for “quality of life crimes.” Ninety percent of the report’s respondents were unable to pay their last citation, which can then lead to additional fees or even an arrest warrant.

Nobody denies that homelessness is a complex, systemic issue — the image of a snake eating its own tail comes to mind — but, as the report suggests, the city’s rampant criminalization of homeless people only compounds the problem. The SFPD’s role is particularly troubling. Per the report:

  • 74% of respondents reported being approached by police in a public space in the last year
  • 20% of respondents reported being approached four or more times in the past month
  • 12% of respondents reported being approached at least twice a week throughout the year

In many cases, “being approached” meant being asked to relocate, often to other areas where homeless people reported feeling unsafe.

One of the more disheartening findings in the report is that police officers rarely provided referrals to social service agencies. The argument that homeless people wouldn’t be interested anyway doesn’t change the fact that, in a better system, officers would be resources rather than displacers.

More than half of respondents also reported being searched by police; 46 percent had their belongings confiscated. Some respondents said that among those belongings were identification cards, prescription meds, tents, blankets, and clean syringes.

As the report makes clear, police officers aren’t social workers, and their ability to get homeless people into shelters or get them food is necessarily limited. The Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is supposed to fill some of those gaps. On average, however, HOT only places nine homeless people per month into permanent housing. Their ability to make significant inroads in managing the city’s homeless population is equally limited.

Even some of the city’s more progressive efforts are a bit disingenuous. Mayor Ed Lee’s Navigation Center, an experimental indoor encampment, opened in the Mission in March; meanwhile, citations for homeless camping have tripled under Lee’s administration. Not that Mayor Lee should be the poster boy for anti-homeless policing:

Across all of the mayoral administrations of the past thirty-five years there has never once been a concerted effort to ‘decriminalize’ homelessness, roll-back enforcement, or approach ‘quality of life’ laws from a civil rights or human rights perspective. 

San Francisco has a notoriously bipolar attitude towards the homeless: Mayor Lee and his cronies cut the ribbon on an innovative new shelter while, just around the corner, cops roust a sleeping man who has nowhere else to go. The Coalition's report acknowledges the sheer wrongheadedness of many city policies while also offering actionable recommendations.

Click here to read the full report

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Jeremy Lybarger

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