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Study calls for an end to criminalizing the homeless

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The Coalition on Homelessness conducted a nine-month study in partnership with researchers at the UC Berkeley Center on Human Rights titled “Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco.” PHOTO BY GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER.
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To read the homeless study, click here

Political disputes over controversial laws, like making it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks or shutting down parks at night, are well-known.

But what often goes overlooked are the consequences of such laws on homeless persons.

A study scheduled for release today attempts to assess what impact these anti-homeless laws – San Francisco has the most of any city in the state – are having on those living on the streets by interviewing them.

“The study makes evident how criminalization not only fails to reduce homelessness in public space, but also perpetuates homelessness, racial and gender inequality, and poverty even once one has exited homelessness,” says the study titled “Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco.”

The Coalition on Homelessness, which conducted the nine-month study in partnership with researchers at the UC Berkeley Center on Human Rights, will discuss the findings today beginning at 11 a.m. at the Hospitality House at 290 Turk St.

It comes as San Francisco plans to make multi-million dollar investments in increasing its police staff amid a continual rise in citations of homeless persons. The study recommends doing away with the anti-homeless laws and investing more in housing and services not “in excessive police personnel and jail facilities.”

Seventy percent of the 351 homeless surveyed had been forced to move from a public space. And when they did move, most relocated to down the street or around the corner, stayed in the same spot or walked around and waited to the police officer left before returning to the same spot. Twenty-two percent of those asked to move moved to a different neighborhood, according to the study.

The study says that “police interactions do not result in connection to services.”

While the police officers are the number one cause for forcing homeless persons to relocate, the officers “rarely offered” services with 24 out of 204 respondents saying when they were forced to move they were offered services like a pamphlet, shelter bed or sandwich. More than 50 percent of those surveyed said they were searched by police and 46 percent had their belongings taken by city officials.

Not surprising, many said they were cited. According to the study, 69 percent of those surveyed were cited in the past year and of them 90 percent couldn’t pay the fines.

Parks citations for sleeping and camping increased sixfold from 165 citations in 2011 to 963 in 2014 and police citations for sleeping, sitting, and begging increased threefold from 1,231 tickets in 2011 to 3,350 in 2013.

“Our survey and interviews did find that criminalization created significant barriers to employment, housing, and financial stability. The respondents’ reports of numerous citations, warrants, license suspensions, fines, and court-ordered debt suggest that criminalization extends, rather than resolves, homelessness,” the study says.

The study adds, “If these so-called ‘Quality of Life’ laws are so effective at reducing homelessness, don’t you think San Francisco would see some tangible results after 35 years?”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the “failed policies” of citing and arresting are “a cruel kick to people who are already on the ground.”

The writers of the study hope it will help local officials make more informed decisions to address homelessness.

“We are looking forward to engaging our electeds in the necessary dialogue to reverse this tide,” Friedenbach said.

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