Homelessness on our streets is at a crisis point in San Francisco. As business owners and residents, we face it on a daily basis. It impacts our stores, our homes and our quality of life.
In this city, no one should be living on the street. But the way to tackle the problem is not solved by repealing laws that enable citizens and businesses to call police for assistance, as suggested by the Budget Analyst report released last week.
The report reflects the seriousness of the situation and the numbers of complaints made to the police are staggering. According to the report, there have been 60,491 quality-of-life violations reported by residents and businesses in San Francisco in 2015 — a 34.8 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. That surge in requests are a call to action. We need to do more, not less, to address this problem.
The report assessed the cost of police response to those calls at $18.5 million and, because of the low citation and arrest rates, questioned the effectiveness of the laws. It also suggested the Board of Supervisors should shift response to complaints about the homeless away from the police department and to other city agencies as a cost-saving measure.
Neither of the propositions make sense. There is no increased cost to The City to place the homeless response under the police department, as that funding is already allocated to their budget. But more importantly, the issues police are responding to — the tents and pit bulls on 16th street near Ace Mailing, the mentally ill screaming and acting threateningly at Civic Center and the woman panhandling with her baby in tow on Montgomery Street — should be addressed by the police. They are public safety concerns and they are breaking voter-mandated laws. Those 60,000 calls to the police weren’t only to report a public nuisance. They were because someone appeared in distress, an individual felt unsafe, or worse, unresponsive. Police responsibility is to respond to 911 emergency calls. It is their job to respond, assist people in need, and arrest, cite or admonish anyone violating the law.
Low citation rates don’t indicate ineffective interventions. It means the police responded and remediated the issue, moving people from residential doorways on Ashbury Street or forcing an aggressive panhandler to leave the area.
We hear these issues on a daily basis from our members. The Union Square Business Improvement District, the Hotel Council, small businesses owners and residents all say their employees, their constituents or they themselves feel unsafe in our city.
The travel industry, which brought 24.6 million visitors and $9.3 billion in spending to San Francisco in 2015, reports that tourists consistently say they love our city but won’t come back due to the rampant drug use on the streets and feeling unsafe. The Union Square BID reports that in the last 12 months there have been 1,500 reported mentally disturbed people on the street, 6,000 aggressive panhandlers and 27,500 incidents reported in the district.
It’s time for the police to do more, not less.
But the police are only responding to these issues, they aren’t solving them. Solutions mean that the number of calls for service resulting from quality-of-life laws goes down because there are fewer instances on our streets. We fully support The City being proactive to tackle the problem and increase the role of non-police personnel. But it’s clear there is an essential role for the police, and the citizens of San Francisco are asking for their help.
Jim Lazarus is the senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. This article was co-authored by Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of SF Travel; Henry Karnilowicz, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants; Gwen Kaplan, owner of Ace Mailing; and Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District.