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VICIOUS CYCLE: 647(j)s

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From the streets to jail and back again, there is a vicious cycle of incarcerations occurring to people who are poor and living on our streets.

Apparently, it is a crime to be poor, because poor people are going to jail.

And it’s because of California Penal Code section 647(j). 647(j) PC is a vaguely written law which prohibits lodging on public property. But we have a problem here, the problem is the city is spending scarce city resources on the enforcement of 647(j) PC citations — incarcerating homeless people for a life sustaining act. Law enforcement officers are writing so many of these citations to homeless people it is impossible for them to keep up with them without one turning into a bench warrant resulting in incarceration.

The struggle homeless people are going through just trying to survive on the streets is enough without getting arrested for sleeping. Also, the majority of 647(j) PC citations are written in error. Officers write them even if you are not in any sort of “structure” but just lying on a blanket or in a sleeping bag.

THE CYCLE

Homeless people are going through a vicious cycle, a revolving door through the system where they are put in jail and are back within weeks for these same charges. Between October, 2001 and October, 2002 over 1,900 647(j) PC citations were issued to homeless people which accounted for 8.6% of all arraignments in San Francisco’s in February, 2002. The costs to the city for each offense is staggering.

Consider police time, processing, court costs, attorney fees, jail, etc.

Homeless people are under constant assault by law enforcement with these kinds of laws. Homeless people are kept on the run from the constant threat of sweeps where the Police and the Department of Public Works come and break up campsites, seize property and cause total chaos. Homeless people are going through upheavals on a daily basis and it’s because of laws like 647(j) PC.

COST TO LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO

The average rent for a studio in San Francisco in May, 2001 goes for about $1,252 a month, a one bedroom apartment is 1,794 a month, this does not include security deposit, which usually is one months rent so in other words it takes over three thousand dollars just to get into a place. Plus there are utilities such as gas, electric, and phone. There are also other hurdles to overcome like background and credit checks. Many cannot afford these rents even if they do receive some kind of assistance, be it GA which averages at $350 a month which will be cut down to $ 59 a month when Prop N takes effect in July or SSI which is around $750 a month. Everyday more people are becoming homeless because they lose a job, exhaust all their resources and find themselves evicted and on the streets.

WHAT ABOUT SROS & SHELTERS?

The average rent in a single room occupancy hotel runs around $600 a month. Shelters are not housing and should never be considered as housing. Even our shelters are at full capacity, homeless people have to take part in a lottery to get into a shelter for a night.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

We need to more affordable housing and in the meantime we need to stop the cycle of homelessness by providing rental assistance or least assist people with short term loans. If people are unable to pay their rent because they lose a job or get sick. We need to keep those who are still housed in housing.

We must keep more people from becoming homeless.

In a time when budgets are being cut and when services are strapped for funding, we need to look into other options on how we address the issue homelessness. Sending people to jail for sleeping on the street is ludicrous!

We need to break this vicious cycle of incarcerating homeless people for status offenses like 647(j) PC.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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