After visiting the highly unsuccessful Street Access for Everyone group efforts in Portland, Oregon, our SF leaders wanted to duplicate failure. So the Mayor launched a group made up primarily of Downtown power—the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the trickle-down-fanatic Committee on Jobs, plus the Chief of Police, the Fire Department, the Department of Public Works, the Public Defender, and the District Attorney and, to throw some legitimacy to the group—the Department of Public Health, one or two token community representatives and a community chair. The group is nebulously entitled San Francisco Streets and Neighborhoods. Of course, when irrelevant safety issues come up, such as violence, the proponent is summarily dismissed so that we can get back to the real issue. The group has met six times, ostensibly to talk about how to keep the streets safer. Or whiter. Or richer. Or just-for-tourists-er. Or let’s just be specific: homeless-free. They pointed out countless times in the beginning of the process that this was not a group to talk about homelessness. Nope: not about homelessness. Yet every presentation and topic has been about… You guessed it: Homelessness!
Sure, sure: They want to address unseemly behavior. You know: aggressive panhandling, drunkenness, sitting, sleeping… all the things that make our streets unsafe. All those dangers to the good citizenry for which we already have laws. After all, there are four (4) anti-panhandling ordinances, five (5) anti-sleeping ordinances, four (4) drinking in public ordinances, three (3) urination/defecation ordinances, eight (8) jaywalking ordinances, and two (2) sidewalk obstruction ordinances. We will soon have a new court that further ghettoizes one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, and sends everyone off to a speedy injustice. What more could we possibly do to get those poor folks back in line and out of sight?
Apparently, to everyone’s surprise, quite a bit. We could stop giving them infraction citations and instead throw them in jail with misdemeanors! We could set up VIP zones in tourist areas! We could pass a new sit-lie ordinance that would ban sitting while poor in public! We could require Street Sheet vendors to register! All these new and creative ideas and more were proposed at the SF Streets and Neighborhoods group meetings!
But there were other ideas—crazy ideas that were immediately thrown out and dubbed unworthy of even discussion. Like having a permanent affordable housing fund that downtown would chip in on. Outrageous! Stricken from further discussion. Or expanding the chronic inebriate program. No. Way. Absolutely not. Too expensive. Fully implement substance abuse treatment on demand? Abysmally bad idea. Why would we want treatment when we can just throw folks in jail? Why solve the problem? Expand mental health treatment system? Again, rejected for more costly criminal justice approaches. Jail! Jail! Jail! Jail!
Of course, these are all merely recommendations which remain under consideration. They have not been implemented. Hopefully we can beat them back. Some, we probably will. Pause for a moment and dream: Ask yourself, what if they get their way, and all these enforcement ideas were implemented? We do have a Mayor running for Governor, and never are times more dangerous for destitute people than when a politician with ambition is at the helm. He is surely looking toward Downtown to finance his run, and he is surely giving something in return. So, how about a nod and a wink, some more oppressive policies shrouded in a feel-good line of rhetoric. What then? These policies are implemented and they fail. We still have poor people on the streets in the tourist areas of San Francisco. Some housed. Some not. Some sick. Some healthy. Some brown, some white, some black. Some immigrant. Some native. What then?
Well, it’s simple: They will have to borrow from history and go to the next step. It really is obvious, isn’t it? They can require registration at the entrance to the tourist areas. You can show identification. If you are from a white foreign country, okay. Others, questionable. You are asked to provide documentation for your purpose of entering. Are you going to work in that area—clean tables, wash dishes, or scrub toilets? In those circumstances, the impoverished classes may enter. Or perhaps you show your wallet, thick with bills ready to spend at Nordstrom’s. Okay. No money, no job, no real purpose for being there? Absolutely not.
This is where we are headed if we continue to address social problems with a criminal justice approach. When people commit crimes, there is a rationale for sending them into the criminal justice system—broken though that system may be. But criminalizing people for simply being too poor to afford a place to live? That’s… well, that’s simply a crime.
We have a skyrocketing rate of turn-aways from the shelter system, and this administration is throwing conniption fits over the data’s going public. Instead of solving that issue, making sure people have help in times of housing crisis, have treatment for their addictive disorders, have mental health care, and access to jobs, this administration wants to focus its energy on a criminal injustice response to poverty. It hasn’t worked for the last three mayoral administrations. It is high time to stop the madness and focus on simply ending homelessness. Today.
We would print the times and locations of these meetings in the Street Sheet, but then the times and locations would then mysteriously change. Just go to http://www.sfgov.org/site/mocj and select SF Streets and Neighborhoods, and the meetings will be posted. There should be two in October, and then the group will likely disband.