The Cost Of Criminalizing Homelessness

In 2015, San Francisco spent $20.6 million enforcing so-called “quality of life” ordinances for more than 60,000 incidents, according to a recent City budgetary analysis. These “quality of life” ordinances, also commonly referred by advocates as “status crimes,” are ordinances that ticket individuals for everyday acts that homeless people are most likely to engage in in public spaces, such as obstructing public spaces by sitting or lying down.

And the level of enforcement is costly with little to show for it, a member of the Board of Supervisors and advocates for homeless people said in a June 15 media briefing at City Hall.

Just days before the board decides how San Francisco should allocate City monies for the 2015–16 budget, Supervisor Eric Mar and members of the Coalition on Homelessness held a press conference detailing the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s findings.

In a report released on June 1, the Analyst concluded that the $20.6 million that the City spends — with police response to 60,491 incidents accounting for the lion’s share — could be better used housing its homeless residents.

“The City is handling the housing and health crisis with law enforcement, and this is clearly wrong,” Mar said. “It is perpetuating the issue and wasting millions of tax dollars. I am ready to take the immediate steps necessary to ensure that this $20.6 million is re-invested in true solutions.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet, added that this expenditure could fund 1,300 housing subsidies for low-income people.

“The report makes it clear that this is not a good use of City funding,” she said. “From a dollars-and-cents perspective, it doesn’t serve us well.”

The Police Department leads all other departments as a cost driver — 90% of “quality of life” spending is used enforcing 36 state and municipal codes.

Academics and advocacy organizations have long criticized San Francisco for its disciplinary approach to homelessness. Last year, University of California, Berkeley and the Coalition on Homelessness reported that the City put 23 ordinances restricting homeless people’s activity in its books — the most in the state.

Coalition organizer Bilal Ali told the media that the enactment of such ordinances are latter-day versions of “Jim Crow” laws and other acts that reflect the vilification of poor people.

“The homeless community continues to be blamed and penalized for being homeless,” he said. “We are criminalized for conducting life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping and resting.”

Policing as a first response to homelessness is more than ineffective, Ali continued.

“Law enforcement approaches to homelessness are punitive and a violation of human and civil rights,” he said. “They are unproductive and costly while the homelessness crisis is proliferating.”

Homeless people must endure an onerous process to resolve citations, he added: If they choose to go to court, they must leave their possessions behind and risk confiscation. Unpaid fines and related costs appearing on credit checks become obstacles to public benefits and employment, he said.

These status offenses don’t just force homeless people to pay in money and time to litigate. A recent incident that happened to Wendy Whimsy, a 29-year-old homeless woman, showed that they also exact a physical toll when people must perform necessary acts outside.

Whimsy suffers from petit mal seizures, post-traumatic disorder and panic attacks. Under a neurologist’s care, she requires rest for the sake of her health and safety.

Those were put at risk on March 1 when Whimsy tried to avoid a group of drunken people on the corner of Haight and Cole streets. A police officer was observing nearby, she said. Whimsy moved down the street and sat down.

The officer walked over and gave her a ticket under the City’s sit-lie ordinance. It was almost 11 p.m., the law’s daily expiration time.

Whimsy is working with the Homeless Youth Alliance, which serves people in their teens and early 20s, but she said fighting the ticket is a struggle.

“It makes me feel the pointlessness of it,” she said. “It’s helplessness. It makes me feel my poverty.”

Yet, businesses often view such visible signs of poverty as driving customers away, and they often prod City officials into using enforcement as a tool to deal with homeless people. Merchant associations and organizations serving the tourism industry disagreed with the Analyst’s report and disputed the fiscal impact in an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner.

“There is no increased cost to the City to place the homeless response under the police budget,” said Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, “as that funding is already allocated to their budget.”

Using anecdotes of mentally ill street residents, pit bull terriers and panhandlers to justify a law enforcement approach, Lazarus said, “It’s time for the police to do more, not less.”