Criminalization May Eat into Local Budgets

by Nicholas Kimura

Federal Agencies Opposing Homeless Criminalization in 2015

August 6, Department of Justice: The DOJ submitted a statement of interest in a district-level suit in Boise, expressing its opinion that criminalization of homelessness constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and is thus a violation of homeless people’s Eighth Amendment rights.

August 11, US Interagency Council on Homelessness: USICH, which has opposed criminalization for a few years, now, released a report on helping folks who live in camps into housing, which emphasized that criminalization was a step backwards.

September 18, Housing and Urban Development: HUD released a Notice of Funding Availability, asking, for the first time, what local governments are doing to stem criminalization.

The Federal government may finally end its complicity in the unconstitutional criminalization of homelessness and life-sustaining activities by local and state authorities. Before municipalities receive the next round of annual US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, they will be required to describe how they are protecting the civil rights of their homeless residents. Throughout the nation, billions of dollars are at stake, and this Federal maneuver may force San Francisco and other cities to reconsider the passage and enforcement of inhumane and discriminatory laws targeting people without housing.

Throughout the country, municipalities have formed Continua of Care (CoCs) to coordinate housing and services for homeless families and individuals. These CoCs compete annually amongst each other for Federal grants to fund said housing and services in their respective localities. The CoC programs receive the grants based on HUD’s selected criteria, such as the reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness and their concrete plans to prevent and end homelessness.

This year, when awarding grant money, HUD will evaluate the “specific strategies implemented by the CoC to ensure that homelessness is not criminalized,” placing San Francisco in the situation of choosing to lose millions of Federal dollars or abandoning its campaign of criminalizing homelessness and poverty. In 2015, San Francisco received over $25.5 million in HUD Continuum of Care grants, funding a variety of services from permanent supportive housing to outreach services and shelter. In order to maintain this level of Federal support, San Francisco must change its course when addressing the situation of people living outside with no shelter.

Undoubtedly, the City will tout its efforts such as the Navigation Center, a low-threshold shelter accommodating couples, pets, and larger quantities of property typically prohibited at established shelters, and the Homeless Outreach (HOT) Team’s collaboration with SFPD as successes in ending homelessness. These stories, however, are masking the reality of rampant displacement, destabilization, citations, and arrests affecting nearly every San Franciscan forced to sleep outside.

The Navigation Center is full and will be ending shortly, as it is only temporary with no future site identified. The HOT Team is fully staffed and works day and night throughout the city, but with access to only a few shelter beds and stabilization hotel rooms, its capacity is very limited. Both these programs were designed to address the high number of people camping and sleeping on our sidewalks, but the real decision-maker around what to do to these people rests in the hands of SFPD.

HOT Team staff identifies the areas where people are sleeping—under freeways, in BART stations, sidewalks—and gets their information to potentially place them at the Navigation Center, ideally keeping people with those they already trust. The decision of whom to shelter and what to do with the people remaining outside, however, is made by City representatives from the Mayor’s office and SFPD. The result has been the prioritization of placement for sleepers who are targets of complaints by hostile, housed neighbors and the daily rousting, citing, and imprisonment for the rest sleeping outside. Essentially, we are sheltering people based on complaints and criminalizing those on the peripheries.

San Francisco has much more to worry about when pondering the ways in which HUD can withhold future funds. The Coalition on Homelessness’ recent report, Punishing the Poorest, demonstrates the true magnitude of the City’s criminalization efforts against residents without housing. A large majority—70%—of the homeless individuals surveyed for the report reported being forced to move from a public space, largely at the hands of SFPD. Those without housing and camping or residing on the streets were much more likely to be confronted than people living in residential hotels or staying with friends—indicating a strategy of targeting people without shelter. Over nine out of 10 of those displaced remained outside with no shelter after confronted. Rather than creating an avenue to better services and housing, those approached by police were much more likely to be searched, have their property confiscated/destroyed, or receive a citation.

Moreover, a recent UC Berkeley study ranked California as the state with the highest number of laws criminalizing homelessness, with over 50 cities outlawing sleeping, standing, sitting, and begging and an average of nine laws per city. The city in California leading the state in laws that punish the poorest? San Francisco, with 23 laws criminalizing life-sustaining activities, 14 more laws than the average California city.

Furthermore, the California Homeless Youth Project released a report citing “state and federal disinvestment in affordable housing” and “municipal codes criminalizing homelessness” as actually contributing to homelessness throughout the state. Thus, San Francisco is leading the state that leads the nation in laws criminalizing homelessness, resulting in a vicious system where people are shuffled through inadequate services, the streets, and our criminal justice system. We are a leader for the “many communities” that attempt “to remove homeless people from public view.”

Since 2009, HUD has stated that “minimizing the trauma and dislocation caused to homeless individuals, families, and communities as a consequence of homelessness” is one of its primary goals for the CoC program. Half a decade later, HUD may finally be striving to achieve one this, and San Francisco may lose out because of its inability to address a fundamental cause of homelessness: a severe lack of secure, affordable housing.