This is the second in a series of articles drawing from the Coalition on Homelessness’ new report Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco.
San Francisco has more anti-homeless laws than any other city in California—23 ordinances banning sitting, sleeping, standing, and begging in public places. Political disputes over these laws are well known. But what often goes overlooked are the consequences of such laws on homeless persons.
To understand the impact of San Francisco’s punitive approach to managing homelessness, the Coalition on Homelessness (also publisher of the Street Sheet) surveyed 351 homeless people about their experiences with criminalization in collaboration with researchers at the UC Berkeley Law School’s Human Rights Center.
The study found that 74% of homeless respondents had been approached by police in public spaces during the last year. 20% reported having been approached at least once a week during the month the survey was taken. For those surveyed who identified as currently unsheltered, police interactions were much more common, with 90% reporting having been approached at least once in the past year and 46% having interactions with police on a weekly basis.
Most of these police interactions involved officers forcing homeless people to move from sitting, resting, or standing in public spaces. 70% of respondents reported that they were forced to move at least once in the past year, with fully 90% of unsheltered respondents reporting being forced to move at some point.
These findings make clear that anti-homeless laws are not simply “tools” used to target or move along a select group of homeless persons behaving in an “uncivil manner,” but instead affect the vast majority of homeless persons who have no other choice but to rest, sit, sleep, stand, and simply exist in public spaces.
When homeless people are instructed to move for sitting on the sidewalk, sleeping in parks, and loitering, where do they go? The study asked respondents where they had moved after their most recent displacement and found that in nearly every case (91%), people did not end up moving out of public space. Only 9% moved indoors, and many of these moves were only temporary.
Most reported moving to drop-in centers or the public library, or riding a city bus. They likely ended up on the street again when drop-in centers or the library closed for the day.
22% of respondents who were forced to move by the SFPD reported moving to public space in a different neighborhood. However, there was no unidirectional movement into a single neighborhood, but rather a constant churning between neighborhoods and across police districts. The result is that even as individuals are driven from one neighborhood to another, the overall numbers of homeless people in each district remain relatively constant.
One interviewee explained, “My typical day is, I’m sleepin’ on the streets. Sometimes I get woken up by cops; sometimes by DPW… In the past year I’ve moved pretty far across San Francisco. I moved from the Haight to China Basin to the Ballpark to the Financial District to the TL and also the Wharf… I felt all they do is pick on homeless people because we’re an easy target instead of—I’ll say it—catching real criminals.”
The forced removal of homeless people from a given area may prove temporarily satisfying to a particular shop owner or resident at the time of their complaint. However, the overall effect is to shuffle homeless people to other public spaces, where other business owners or residents might complain. Furthermore, the prevention of sleep and rest due to the constant displacement and the entanglements with the criminal justice system through citation and arrest that often result prolongs homelessness. The findings suggest that the long-term result of this continual policing is more homeless people in public space, not less.
The Myth of SFPD’s “Homeless Outreach”
In 2004, Greg Suhr (current Chief of Police) launched “Operation Outreach,” a key component of which was SFPD “homeless outreach units” – 24 officers who respond solely to 911 calls regarding complaints involving homelessness during their daily shifts. According to the SFDP’s website dedicated to homelessness, “The mission of Operation Outreach is to locate the homeless wherever they might be and to determine their needs… to provide targeted services for those in need while addressing quality of life concerns in the communities we serve.”
This public presentation may leave the impression that Homeless Outreach Units are some sort of hybrid of police and social work force, with special training or resources to address homelessness. However, the study found that services were rarely ever mentioned during police interactions and that punitive treatments such as displacement, search and seizure of property, and citations were far more common.
Of the 204 survey respondents who had been forced to move from public spaces by the SFPD, only 24 reported receiving services during their most recent police interaction. Ten respondents were offered a single-night shelter bed, five were referred to the Department of Public Health’s street care team, three were given food, and six received rides to detox or informational pamphlets.
These services, both palliative and primitive, pale in comparison to the frequency of searches and destruction of homeless people’s property. Of survey participants:
- 56% had been searched, and 21% in the last month.
- 46% had their belongings taken away by City officials.
- 38% had their belongings destroyed by City officials.
- 47% reported that their fear of being searched prevented them from carrying certain needed belongings.
Respondents reported having their prescribed medication, blankets, tents and sleeping bags confiscated or destroyed by SFPD or DPW, all of which threaten an individual’s health, well being, and ability to survive on the streets. Many reported having destroyed various forms of identification such as birth certificates, social security, and veteran cards, which create significant barriers to accessing government benefits such as employment and housing.
Criminalized for Existing
Homeless people are not in public space by choice. They are in public space because they cannot afford rent and have nowhere else to go. San Francisco has a total of 1,200 shelter beds for single adults with an official counted homeless population hovering at over 6,400 at any given time. This amounts to roughly one shelter bed for every five homeless people. On any given day, over 500 people are on the 311 shelter wait list, and on any given night, there are between 20 and 100 people who sleep in chairs because they were unable to access a shelter bed for the evening. During the day, the vast majority of shelters are closed. The city only has a handful of drop-in centers, leaving the parks, library, and pews of St. Boniface Church where poor people are invited inside to rest until 3 p.m. as the only truly public spaces—although if one falls asleep at the library, a guard will promptly wake them up.
Amidst these highly limited options, the continual policing faced by homeless people due to anti-homeless laws is not only costly and ineffective, but unconstitutional. In a recent report issued by the US Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agencies found such laws to likely be in violation of a number of amendments and may “violate international human rights law, specifically the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
When asked to respond to the report’s findings, SFPD Homeless Outreach Coordinator Lt. Nevin’s expressed frustration about the directive to enforce anti-homeless laws and explained that many police officers would prefer not to enforce “quality of life” laws, and would rather focus on serious crimes. However, he said, police must enforce laws that are on the books, regardless of whether they agree that policing is an appropriate response: “If Mrs. Smith continues to call 911 because some guy’s sleeping on her door step, we are duty-bound to respond.”
However, the study also found that enforcement of anti-homeless laws varied drastically even when the laws remained the same—for instance between 2011 and 2014 citations for such offenses tripled. This suggests that reforms can be pushed at the local level around prioritizing resources addressing “crime.”
A more systemic solution would be to abolish laws criminalizing homelessness in the first place. In California, Senator Carol Liu has presented legislation, SB 608, known as the Right to Rest Act, that would prohibit the enforcement of laws banning activities that homeless people have no choice but to engage in in public. While Alameda County supported the bill, San Francisco County did not come out in public support. Supervisors could be pressured to support this bill in solidarity with our East Bay neighbors while pressing for local reforms in the meantime.