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Could New Cash to Fight Homelessness in San Francisco Mean Less Reliance on Police?

Supporters hope the passage of Prop C may herald a more compassionate—and effective—approach.

Flickr/Dale Cruse (CC by 2.0)

For Anubis Daugherty, 24, who spent six years living on the streets of San Francisco, avoiding the police was a constant struggle. “I was cited all the time, from the day I was homeless to the day I wasn’t,” he said.

That was one of the reasons he was eager to canvass and make phone calls for Proposition C, a ballot measure that taxes big businesses to fund more services, shelter beds, and housing in the city. Passed by voters last week, it could generate an estimated $300 million per year.

Daugherty, who later did street outreach through Larkin Street Youth Services, hopes that Prop C could hasten a shift in San Francisco away from policing and criminalizing homeless people and toward long-term solutions.

So does Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which led the campaign for Prop C. “San Francisco has approached this primarily through a police response, and moving people from block to block, and that’s been a complete failure,” she told The Appeal. “That’s exacerbated homelessness.”

There are about 7,500 homeless people at any moment in San Francisco, and as many as 21,000 people experience homelessness each year, according to the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Despite its reputation as a progressive stronghold, San Francisco has more than 30 quality of life ordinances that can be used to sanction homeless people.

Voters passed a ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks in 2010, backed by then-mayor and now California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. Two years ago, they approved Prop Q, which banned tents from city sidewalks. In 2017, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) issued roughly 6,676 “anti-homeless” citations, according to a projection by the Coalition on Homelessness based on SFPD data, for offenses like camping and public urination.

The push to “clean up” homelessness in San Francisco has intensified, advocates say, with the influx of wealthy tech workers.

San Francisco’s penalties are not unusual. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has tracked laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 cities nationwide. Between 2006 and 2016, bans on camping in those cities increased by 69 percent, and sit/lie bans increased by 52 percent. Even if a homeless person doesn’t face prosecution or jail time, citations themselves are dangerous, explained Eric Tars, the center’s senior attorney. “Whether it’s an actual arrest, or a ticket and a fine that an individual can’t pay, so it’s likely to turn into a bench warrant and an arrest down the road, it’s still a barrier in the way of that individual getting out of homelessness,” he said.

The push to “clean up” homelessness in San Francisco has intensified, advocates say, with the influx of wealthy tech workers, some of whom have shown open contempt for homeless people. Between 2013 and 2017, 311 reports about human excrement nearly doubled and complaints about discarded needles rose 228 percent, according to data compiled by NBC. According to a 2016 report, income inequality in San Francisco is higher than in any other city in the state.

But the increasing pressure on city officials to address homelessness has also led to a willingness to shift gears on how to tackle the problem. New interagency programs have sprouted, and police citations often used against homeless people dropped by more than 30 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to data analyzed by the Coalition on Homelessness.

There are also signs of change in how city courts handle homelessness. In October, the San Francisco public defender’s office filed a series of challenges to prosecutions for sleeping on the sidewalk or in public. Those came in response to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of six homeless people who challenged Idaho laws against sleeping on public property. The court declared such laws a violation of Eighth Amendment protections from cruel and unusual punishment if they are enforced against people who have no other place to sleep.

Our homelessness crisis is taking a severe toll on our neighborhoods and tourist industry, which provides thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to our local economy.

Mayor London Breed San Francisco

After the Ninth Circuit decision and the challenges from the public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office said it would no longer prosecute street sleeping, a misdemeanor offense, unless the person has been offered housing and refused. “Which is essentially saying we’re not going to prosecute these cases anymore,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told The Appeal, “and we haven’t seen those since.”

Max Szabo, a spokesman for District Attorney George Gascón, told The Appeal that without offering shelter, prosecuting such cases is “not only unconstitutional, it’s inhumane and ineffective.”

But the city hasn’t abandoned policing as a tool to fight homelessness. If someone refuses shelter, Szabo continued, “citations can be pursued to maintain quality of life and intervene with community members on our streets that might be unable to make decisions that are in their own self-interest.”

That’s similar to the position articulated by Mayor London Breed, who said while campaigning for the office in May that she backed “a tough-love approach” for homeless people, adding that the “tough doesn’t work without the ‘love.’” Breed declared at her July inauguration: “Our homelessness crisis is taking a severe toll on our neighborhoods and tourist industry, which provides thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to our local economy. We have worked to hire 400 new police officers, and as mayor I will add hundreds more.”

She has backed programs that pair policing with services, like the new Healthy Streets Operations Center, a collaboration between city agencies that responds to 311 complaints by residents. “We can’t control what people decide to do,” Breed said in a recent interview. Her hope, she said, is to “basically get to a point where [homeless] people say, ‘OK, fine, I’ll accept the help.’” But the SF Weekly recently reported that for the majority of 311 calls, police and Department of Public Works staffers respond—rather than outreach workers. Breed has also pushed for “conservatorship” for homeless people struggling with substance use disorder or mental illness, a plan that has raised concerns among homeless rights groups.

The virtue of criminalization is you hide the cost of it in your police budget.

Eric Tars National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

While Breed has called for more homeless services and 1,000 new shelter beds by 2020, she opposed Prop C, citing accountability concerns and the potential loss of jobs if businesses leave the city.

But advocates say shifting gears on homelessness could save some money, too. In a 2016 report based on 2015 data, the city’s budget and legislative analyst’s office said the city spends $20.6 million annually on sanctioning homeless people.

“The virtue of criminalization is you hide the cost of it in your police budget,” Tars told The Appeal. “The good thing is, in many places across the U.S., we are coming to this consensus that criminalization of homelessness is not the best approach, that is it more costly to cycle people through the criminal justice system than it is to simply be able to provide them with housing.”

Gascón announced last month that he won’t run for re-election. As the race to replace him gets underway, homelessness could be an issue for the next DA.

Prop C will most likely face a court challenge in the months ahead, but advocates say it could make a difference if the money comes through. “We know that this is going to fund all of the things the mayor has been wanting to do that she hasn’t had the funding to do,” Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said, adding that she hopes it also brings a deeper shift. “We cannot ticket or jail our way out of homelessness,” she said.