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Eye on Civil Rights-July 2004

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There are two strands that weave through this story: degradation and waste. The first one is the province of homeless people; the second hits us all where we live.

Civil Rights. Historically, the phrase conjures images of buses and classrooms. Marchers and police dogs. Drinking fountains and fire hoses. Battles over, of all things, bathrooms. And, of course, the divide between Black and white.

The civil rights struggles of today are vastly different—yet curiously akin. Again, streets are the most frequent battlegrounds, bathroom privileges remain a key issue, and black-vs-white tensions can come into play. Today, though, the people who find their civil rights most in danger of eroding—the truly disenfranchised—belong to a group defined not by color, but rather by housing status. Sadly, in San Francisco as elsewhere, lives that are already lacking the fundamental security of housing are rendered additionally insecure by law enforcement tactics that blatantly disregard the basic concepts of civil rights and human dignity.

Criminalizing the Houseless

To understand civil rights in the context of homelessness in general, and San Francisco’s homeless community in particular, requires a massive shift in perspective for anyone unfamiliar with life as it’s lived on the streets. Simply stated, if you’re homeless, the most basic acts of survival—e.g. eating and sleeping, not to mention that whole bathroom issue—become prosecutable offenses.

Scenario: You’re hungry, tired, and you need to pee. You’ve got a heavy, bulky pack containing everything you own (and can’t afford to replace) strapped to your back, and long to put it down. Unfortunately, though, you lack money for food, and if you ask the people around you to help out financially, you invite negative consequences ranging from rejection to arrest.

If you find that prospect so intimidating that you’d sooner starve in silence, perhaps you’d like to consider your options for physical rest—an opportunity to lay down your burden and stretch out. Living in the street as you do, however, your options again tend to be both bleak and limited. You can simply drop your pack on the ground and curl up on top of it, which has the virtue of keeping your stuff relatively safe (relative to your person, that is), but if the location you’re considering sacking out on happens to be “either public or private property,” at bare minimum you’re risking a rousting from a private property owner. At the authoritarian extreme, an encounter with the SFPD might deprive you of your belongings and/or your freedom, not to mention sullying your up-till-now spotless legal record. The fact is that if you start the day homeless, it is all too easy to end it as an accused criminal—without doing any more than trying to make it through the day.

Quality of Life, Legally Speaking

Ironically, the laws invoked in such circumstances are grouped under the rubric “quality of life.” They govern such everyday life-sustaining actions as eating and sleeping, as well as behaviors like panhandling and open containers, and have been on the books forever. In recent times, though, these statutes have taken on new life as part of San Francisco’s approach toward the homeless issue, through the SFPD’s admitted selective enforcement of them (more on this later).

LS Wilson, coordinator of the Coalition’s Civil Rights Project, explains: “As soon as you’re houseless, if you can’t or won’t get into a shelter, you’re illegal—just like that. So we’ve got people running around the City and hiding—and sooner or later, coming into conflict with the authorities.

Minimizing the impact of that conflict on San Francisco’s homeless community is a key Civil Rights Project effort, with ongoing outreach designed to ensure that the people living on the City’s streets and in its parks know their rights and how best to assert them. Efforts toward this end range from simply passing out pamphlets (in English and Spanish) explaining optimal approaches when dealing with the cops (never volunteer either information or access to your belongings; try to limit the interaction to asking whether or not you’re being detained, and if not, keep moving), how and where to recover your belongings if they’re confiscated, and even how to minimize potential hassles over pet dogs (information on licensing and leash laws). Staff members also bring the information in these handouts alive in larger, more organized workshops that involve their homeless attendees in skits and role-playing exercises (“Now, YOU be the cop…”).

For those whose encounters with the law don’t follow the script, the Civil Rights Project offers the Citation Defense Program, which advises the majority of those with quality of life-related tickets to turn them over to its volunteer legal staff to be fought aggressively through the courts. This confrontational approach reflects a definite Citation Defense Program agenda: its goal is to make prosecuting these cases so time-consuming and costly that the City will be forced to abandon its use of “quality of life” laws as a tool for “handling” homeless individuals, and look harder at approaches actually designed to help people exit homelessness.

Changing the Focus

Have you ever wondered why the homeless population tends to migrate around the City? Or speculated somewhat cynically on the odds of “Tenderloin Cleanups” falling on or around events that tend to draw tourists to San Francisco in large numbers, such as the Bay to Breakers or Pride Week? Or, if you’re more cynical yet, ever laid odds on such a cleanup occurring shortly after another pronouncement on “tackling the issue of homelessness” is issued by the Mayor’s office?

The Coalition’s Civil Rights Project feels strongly that “tackling the issue” is precisely what selective enforcement of “quality of life” laws avoids. Project staffer Lisa Cooper explains, “Selective enforcement puts the focus on the chronic, most visible homeless. As a result, homeless people in general become stereotyped as drug-abusing criminals. Nothing really changes but the faces and the places.”

By focusing on homelessness as a law enforcement issue, rather than as representative of a serious rip in the basic fabric of our community, the city creates two distinct, profoundly undesirable outcomes: For homeless people, it is intensely personally degrading to face the constant threat of legal prosecution and resultant criminalization as they go about the everyday activities of life; for everyone who lives in the City, it is extraordinarily costly in every sense of the word.

Your Tax Dollars at Waste

Let’s look at the economic impact first. Quite simply, especially in an era of social service budget slashing and “belt tightening,” the dollar cost of taking the law enforcement tack toward “tackling” homelessness is unconscionably high. For example, Civil Rights group research discovered that it costs San Francisco more than $10K to prosecute a single CPC 647(j) case (that’s “illegal lodging” to the uninitiated—and, incidentally, since it’s an actual misdemeanor charge as opposed to a mere citation, falls outside of the Citation Defense Program’s purview and into the lap of the Public Defender). And when you look at all of the costs associated with this policy (police time, overtime on processing warrants, court costs, etc.), the final tally winds up in the million dollar range.

True Crime

Which brings us to the basic premise that underlies the Civil Rights Project’s efforts: Spending this kind of time, money, and effort on prosecuting individuals who are simply engaged in living life on the streets, and using the force of the law to move the homeless off the streets and into jails, rather than into housing, is the REAL criminal act.

“Our goal is to stop San Francisco’s prosecution of poor and homeless people for simple acts of survival,” Wilson says. “It’s inhumane. It’s destructive, and it’s self-perpetuating, and it’s WAY expensive. We’ve met with the Mayor, the District Attorney, and the Chief of Police, trying to get their cooperation on seeking alternatives—shifting the focus and the funding from prosecution to real solutions.”

Sadly, the response thus far has not been encouraging. “Basically, they say that the law enforcement is ‘complaint driven’,” Wilson says. “But in fact, the majority of these citations are given in industrial areas, so who’s doing the complaining? What really happens is that the cops let the encampments build up for a while, then do sweeps on them without warning. They use selective enforcement of “quality of life” laws to move people. Anytime authorities want to show their effectiveness, they can move the homeless away from a particular part of the city.”

Care? Where?

Currently, tensions on the streets are mounting, as Newsom’s much vaunted outreach team concludes its initial 30-day foray into the state of homelessness in San Francisco circa 2004, and people on all sides of the issue look to see the promised next steps toward a more “caring,” service- and solutions-oriented approach. If first impressions are at all indicative, however, they might spend a long time looking.

The fact is that little or no funding has been allocated for additional housing units and service slots to back up the “Care” side of the equation. Much of the assistance offered through the new outreach efforts so far has been achieved by the Mayor’s outreach workers arbitrarily “fast-tracking” the road to appropriate assistance for relatively small numbers of homeless individuals. Unfortunately, not only does this represent at best a tradeoff, it tends to be a blatantly unfair one because it disproportionately benefits the most visible homeless individuals at the expense of that portion of the homeless population who have made the greatest investment in working within the parameters of the City’s often Byzantine social services system.

“Look at ‘Care not Cash,’” Wilson points out. “First Gavin promises 1000 housing units, drug treatment slots, medical services, and job training. Then it passed, and now those 1000 units have dropped to 200, and we’re mostly talking shelter beds. The shelters were never intended as anything but temporary, short-term fixes, but now shelter’s being called ‘housing’. These policies are simply perpetuating homelessness.”

“It’s time to stop pointing fingers,” he concludes. “Stop blaming homeless people and start looking at REAL solutions.”

Putting principle into practice, that’s precisely what the Civil Rights Project is setting out to do during the next few months. The group has prepared a survey designed to gather the views of a broad cross section of San Francisco’s residents on what the City could and should do to meet the needs of its citizens currently living without benefit of housing. Toward that end, volunteer survey takers will soon be hitting the streets, pads and pencils in hand. If you’d like to be a part of the search for real solutions to homelessness in San Francisco—or if you simply like to chat up strangers—volunteer slots are still available in some areas. For more information, call 415-346-3740 or drop into Coalition headquarters at 468 Turk Street, Monday through Friday, between 9 am and 3 pm and ask for the Civil Rights Project.


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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