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Lock'em All Up!: Are Policing and Prisons the Solution to Homelessness?

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With regard to the past year’s increased police presence in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a recent report out of UCLA informed us that: “…the policing effort has… had consequences that, while perhaps unintended, have actually served to make it harder for many homeless people to find and maintain shelter off the streets of Skid Row. The 1,000 monthly citations, most of which will result in arrest warrants, do not seem to be having the desired affect on pedestrian violations, but will lead some people who are housed to lose their housing, and homeless people who have some protection from the elements to lose that protection.” (Blasi, Gary. Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness?: The First Year of the Safer Cities Initiative on Skid Row. 2007. p. 51)

Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer, through a miracle of bureaucratic exegesis, somehow interprets this: “’law enforcement is a key component in cities that have experienced a decline’ in the number of people lying, sitting or camping on the sidewalk.”

The Freeper-like gutters of the SFGate comments section gurgle with approval, clicking and scrolling evergreater ad revenue to the sensationalist rag. The idea has been stated by Trent Rhorer thus: “Maybe… you just need a guy with a badge standing over [homeless people] and saying, you can’t stay there any more.” More explicitly, this would take the form of a sit-lie ordinance that would make it even more illegal to commit public crimes against white-collar complacency.

Two important questions are going to come in any further debate of this issue: 1) Is a sit-lie ordinance morally defensible? 2) Will it work?

The first question has wandered into public discourse from the realm of the morally surreal. If I shoot you in the leg and steal your bike, which makes me a more moral person: driving you to the hospital like a bleeding heart, or kicking you to encourage you to walk there more quickly? If rich people evict poor people from the Fillmore, SoMa, Manilatown, and elsewhere through eminent domain in order to steal that land for private gain, is it more moral for them to: 1) be philanthropists, and provide poor people unhygienic shelters in which the staff deal drugs and 45% of all residents report abuse; or 2) employ a tough-love approach, and illegally pack homeless people into already over-crowded jails, thinking that will teach ‘em to be poor in public?

Two examples of model cities with harsher police policies have been put forward so far: Those of Philadelphia and Portland. Unfortunately, our City administrators’ understandings of the situations on the street in these two cities is no better than their reading comprehension. Philadelphia’s 1998 Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance was met with tremendous opposition. As a result, the city invested a great deal of new money into affordable housing and homeless services. It is these efforts, and the city’s Homeless Outreach Teams, which have typically been credited in improving conditions in Philadelphia. Thus, it’s not the sit-lie ordinance but the opposition which has been heralded as the Big Good Thing. And Portland’s ordinance has only been around for one Summer—hardly a model, yet, for an approach to a long-term problem.

Why You Can’t Punish People Out of Poverty

In December of 1988, then Police Chief Frank Jordan told the people of San Francisco, “Homelessness is not a criminal justice problem.” Five years later, he had somehow changed his mind. In the Summer of 1993, Jordan sent out undercover cops, decoys, and video cameras for a sweep and crack-down on aggressive panhandlers. After hundreds of hours of police time, his officers found what Jordan had concluded years earlier: Homelessness was not a criminal justice problem. They just couldn’t find all that many aggressive panhandlers. “The real problem,” Jon Carroll wrote in the July 16 Chronicle, “is freelance begging. Merchants and lawyers and political shakers don’t like seeing beggars in the downtown area; it makes them feel bad. Oh, they’ll talk about the negative impact on the tourist business, but what they really mean is the negative impact on their own sense of well-being… Feeling greedy? Feeling guilty? How about a metaphor?

“It’s treating the symptom as though it were the disease; it’s pandering to the odd persistent fantasies of the wealthy. A hollow-eyed woman stares at a politician; another clear case of aggression.”

Despite the ridiculously meager results of this intended crackdown, Jordan would not be convinced that this non-criminal-justice problem didn’t require a law enforcement solution. In December of the previous year, Police Chief Anthony Ribera had begun a “matrix enforcement plan,” designed to reduce crime overall by concentrating enforcement on select, focus areas. In August of the following year, Mayor Jordan brought into being what was initially designed as a month of sustained police harassment of homeless people termed the Quality of Life Enforcement Program, but QLEPtomania quickly became a core aspect of the Jordan Mayoralty, and Ribera’s matrix concept became the tag term for the effort.

By the end of that first month, more than 400 people had been warned, cited, or arrested for misdemeanors. Of the 42 arrests that the Coalition on Homelessness was able to document in that month, only one was for urinating in public; the rest were all sleeping offenses.

At first, it looked like Frank Jordan was getting what he wanted out of the program. Police officers gave presentations to business groups. An ineffective, unpopular Mayor began to look like he was doing something.

But the plan fairly quickly began to backfire. Board President Angela Alioto decried Matrix as, “one of the most inhumane programs the city has ever had.” Berkeley complained that the homeless people San Francisco was persecuting were simply moving across the Bay. In the first six months, 6,268 citations were issued to homeless people, more than 5,000 of which went to warrant. The Department of Social Services reported that of the 2,246 Matrix persecutees whom they contacted between August of 1993 and April of 1994, only 6% had moved into permanent housing. The great majority needed mental health services or substance abuse treatment services, but there was documentation of exactly zero referrals. By the time it was all over, more than 40,000 citations had been issued. Thousands of people’s lives had been disrupted. The City had spent millions of dollars. And homelessness remained the San Francisco electorate’s number one concern.

In October 1995, one month before his ouster, Jordan stated, “I’m going to keep to [Matrix] even though I seem to be the only person who supports it.”

Shell games, Conservation of Mass, and Policy recidivism

Matrix officially ended when a fed-up San Francisco kicked Jordan to the curb and elected former Assemblyman Willie Brown. The honeymoon between Brown and homeless advocates, however, was short-lived. Once again, San Francisco was subjected to a distraction of police from real crime policing to the harassment of homeless people. Brown went so far as considering using helicopters to police Golden Gate Park.

But these policies have always failed. Why? Because of a very simple law of physics—that of Conservation of Mass. Matter can be moved from Point A to Point B. It can be shuffled under shells. But it can never be created or destroyed. Homeless people didn’t come from nowhere, and no amount of police harassment will make them disappear into the ether.

The same law explains the failure, so far, of the Newsom administration to mitigate homelessness in any way. The housing offered to (very few) formerly homeless people in exchange for a huge cut of their General Assistance checks consists of single-room occupancy hotel rooms in which other poor people lived before the City’s master leases took effect. So, despite the wild claims that the administration has made about its housing homeless people, as many poor people have been displaced from these SROs as have been placed into them, and as many homeless people have immigrated into San Francisco as we’ve deported through the Homeward Bound Program. The end result? According to the most recent Homeless Count, homelessness has increased in this city.

With the administration’s previous shell games failing, the gossip column incognoscenti and a section of ostrich-minded affluentials are asking that the Mayor try once again another shell game that has failed multiple times before.

But, like all shell games, whether or not you can see that red, squishy ball, it’s still there. This solution cannot work. All it can do is even further oppress an already oppressed people.


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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