On any sunny Saturday, hundreds of people fill the Mission’s Dolores Park with their friends, pets, music—and their trash. Current anti-littering laws do little to combat this latter phenomenon, as on most days, police officers in Dolores Park can be seen standing at the top of the hill, surveying the park for violent or egregious misconduct but doing nothing about the wrappers, cigarettes, bags, and other refuse being left by the park’s attendees. While the officers watch along the perimeters, city employees walk throughout the park, collecting beer cans and other recyclables as inebriated park-goers toss them to the ground.
Rather than toughening the enforcement of anti-littering laws, District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy proposes to combat the issue by increasing littering fines. Currently, fines for littering in Dolores Park are set not to exceed $100 for the first infraction, $200 for the second, and $500 for each subsequent offense. But if Sheehy’s proposed legislation passes, first-time littering offenders in Dolores Park will be subject to a fine of up to $1000. The ordinance would also prohibit the use of glass beverage containers in all San Francisco parks and “expressly [recognize] the authority of the Park Patrol to issue citations to enforce the Park Code.”
In May 2017, Lizzie Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “not a single person has been ticketed for littering in Dolores Park this year.” This is not to say, however, that the City of San Francisco refuses to ticket anyone for littering elsewhere. Littering is classified under the City’s so-called “quality of life” laws, along with drinking in public, obstruction of a street or sidewalk, and camping in a park. According to the findings of the San Francisco Fines & Fees Task Force, a division of the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector for the City and County of San Francisco, the City issued more than 15,000 quality of life citations in 2016. The report also notes that on average, the City spends $20 million per year issuing quality of life citations.
Quality of life citations have repeatedly been proven to disproportionately affect the homeless, as the study “Publishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco” notes that 69 percent of surveyed homeless individuals reported having received a quality of life citation in the past year, and 22 percent reported having received more than five quality of life citations in the same time period. Most tellingly, 90 percent of respondents reported that they were unable to pay their most recent citation.
For a person experiencing homelessness or living in poverty, a $100, $200, or $500 littering ticket is nothing trivial—especially considering that these fines are usually accompanied by a $300 civil assessment fee—but a $1000 fine is out of the question.
“A thousand dollars, to a lot of folks in our community, is a massive amount,” noted Kelley Cutler, a Human Rights Organizer with San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet. In fact, the Federal Reserve reports that half of Americans say they lack the resources to cope with a $400 unexpected expense.
“All of the different quality of life laws disproportionately impact people who are experiencing homelessness,” Cutler added, “Oftentimes, that’s why they’re created.”
In terms of intent, the littering fine increase in Dolores Park might represent an outlier, but its purpose and potential efficacy are difficult to determine. “This one is a little different,” said Cutler, “because they’re responding to Dolores Park, but the reality with the actual implementation, I think, is not going to be limited in that way.”
In April 2017, Nato Green suggested in the San Francisco Examiner that “a little ticketing in Dolores Park could go a long way.” Green also observed, following a Saturday that left the park particularly trash-strewn by supposedly housed parkgoers, “If the City had cited people in Dolores Park with the same criteria they use against the homeless, we would have heard about it. Of course, they didn’t.”
It remains unclear how Sheehy intends for littering fines to be distributed under his proposed ordinance, or whether the Board of Supervisors has examined current ticketing rates in Dolores Park. “I don’t know how often [littering fines are] enforced,” Cutler remarked, “They might want to look at that first.”
Sheehy declined to comment. At the July 12 meeting of the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, all three members — Sheehy, Sandra Lee Fewer of District 1 and Hillary Ronen of District 9 — voted to postpone further action until the next committee meeting on Sept. 13. The committee would decide whether to send the ordinance to the full board.
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