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A STREET SHEET 15TH ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE: SAN FRANCISCO HOMELESS POLICY CYCLE ONLY KEEPS REPEATING

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As we pored through fifteen years of STREET SHEET back issues for articles to showcase in the months approaching our 15th anniversary, we were struck yet again by how the local homeless policy cycle keeps turning in circles. This blast from the past, our lead story from the April 1995 STREET SHEET, observes a significant victory against the last local mayor to gain office on a downtown business-funded homeless criminalization campaign. It also goes a long way toward showing our message has always stayed the same.

And while we all hold our breath to see if Gavin Newsom can succeed in criminalizing homelessness from our streets after so many others have failed these last twenty years, we humbly offer one bit of COH’s experiential wisdom: a real commitment to creating low-income housing can actually succeed in reducing local homelessness, while quality of life enforcement crackdowns are repeatedly proved wasteful, inhumane and ineffective.

BOARD OF SUPES SAY “NO” TO MATRIX

On Monday, March 20, 1995, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to denounce Mayor Jordan’s “Quality of Life Enforcement” Matrix program. Supervisor Angela Alioto sponsored the resolution along with Supervisors Ammiano, Teng, Bierman and Hallinan. The resolution makes two major points: first, that the Matrix program is bad public policy which makes it a crime to be poor in San Francisco; and second, that citing homeless people for sleeping outside is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the U.S. Constitution.

Since August 1993, over 22,000 citations have been issued to people for breaking the law by sleeping, sitting, urinating and drinking in public. The tickets have been accompanied by ongoing harassment just for being homeless in San Francisco. Matrix has also made it difficult for many people to get into the treatment programs they need and want, because preference for referrals to these programs has been saved for the Matrix outreach personnel. It was clear from the start whose “quality of life” the Mayor and the SFPD were concerned about “enforcing”—the residents of the wealthy neighborhoods of our city, and those vocal business owners who have supported Jordan’s crackdown.

Finally, after 20 brutal months of Matrix, there are now enough members of the Board who are fed up with Mayor Jordan’s policy to criminalize homelessness to take a solid stand against it. A similar resolution was defeated in December of 1993, when the Matrix program was still new. Since that time, San Francisco voters got rid of the two strongest Matrix proponents (Maher and Conroy), and elected the more humane representatives Tom Ammiano and Mabel Teng. (Apparently, despite Jordan’s claims to the contrary, the citizens of San Francisco do not support Matrix.) In addition, Supervisors Leal and Kennedy have apparently come around to understanding that despite its claim to incorporate social services and shelter into the mix, Matrix has done nothing more than put people in jail for warrants issued as a result of unpaid Matrix tickets.

Mayor Jordan, upon hearing that the Board had passed this resolution, insisted that Matrix would continue. In fact, reports of increased ticketing seem to confirm the SFPD’s vengeful response.

This resolution is our victory, but is just a start. While the resolution does not have the power to stop Matrix today, it DOES give us solid ground upon which we can fight for a change in existing laws that are being used unfairly to harass us, to begin to push the Board to assert its power to stop funding any Matrix-related activities, and to continue to demand police accountability for their abuses.

It is now on record that the “Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco does not support the selective enforcement of infractions through the Matrix enforcement program” and that the “City and County of San Francisco [should] use its energy, resources and commitment to attack homelessness, not homeless people.”

Right now these are just words. We must continue to push the city officials to put their money where their mouths are and end Matrix for good.

STREET SHEET, APRIL 1995

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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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