On a rainy Tuesday, March 22, about 50 homeless people with supporters from the community gathered on the steps of City Hall to ask the Mayor about some numbers. Their question: “If there are fewer homeless people in San Francisco and the City is focusing its limited resources on ‘Housing First’, why has the number of citations issued for camping in the city’s parks nearly tripled over the past year?”
In sharp contrast to numerous recent attempts by the City at accurately quantifying the state of homelessness in San Francisco, these figures are undisputed. Data obtained by the Coalition on Homelessness regarding the City’s prosecution of so-called “Quality of Life” infractions in San Francisco Municipal Court indicate that in 2003 (pre-Newsom), 436 tickets were handed out for “camping” in the City’s parks; In 2004, that number rose sharply to 1114. And the most recent figures available show this trend continuing: the January 2003 monthly ticket total was just 14, while under the current administration, January 2005 saw 63 would-be campers cited—an average of more than two per day.
Camping citations are particularly difficult for homeless people to expunge from their records, since clearing them involves paying a fine larger than most can afford, or negotiating the court system successfully without the benefit of a public defender or other court-appointed assistance. As a result, tickets turn into warrants and warrants to jail time, or free labor for the city through community service–“a matter of grave concern,” says Nicole Solis of the Public Defender’s office.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, goes further. What he’d like to see is the creation of a “Clean Slate” program for homeless people whose “Quality of Life” citations have become warrants. Adachi explains, “Ideally, ticketing is viewed as intervention–an impersonal push toward services; in reality, tickets are a deterrent. But if you could offer homeless people with citations a single point of entry to get those records expunged, you might have a chance of getting them back on track.”
Following is a statement by Emalie Huriaux of The Women’s Community Clinic that reflects the concerns of many who turned out for the press conference:
“Mayor Newsom is touting a model of supportive housing as a key element in ending chronic homelessness. Although this strategy is an important one, San Francisco is ill-equipped to meet the need for housing that our population demands.
“At the most recent Project Homeless Connect—the Mayor’s version of a health fair for homeless folks—only two percent of the 1000 people who attended received housing. Where did the City expect the other 980 people without housing to go in a system with a lack of appropriate shelter?
“The City has ticketed homeless people for camping and sleeping in public for years, but under Mayor Newsom’s administration the number of camping citations has tripled. Why are our tax dollars being used to make life harder on homeless people?
“Why are our tax dollars being used to create criminal records for homeless people already struggling to get jobs, housing and financial assistance, rather than being spent to create more supportive housing units?
“Why are our tax dollars being spent for the Department of Public Works to confiscate and destroy homeless people’s property—including prescription medications often prescribed and paid for by City-funded clinics—when our tax money should be spent on programs to integrate physical and mental health services into supportive housing?
“Mayor Newsom presents his homeless strategies as innovative and effective. It’s time he puts an end to old practices of criminalizing homeless people or victim-blaming, and starts doing the real work to end homelessness.”