Citations for sleeping, camping in SF parks balloon

In the past four-plus years, the number of citations issued by the Recreation and Park Department for sleeping or camping in San Francisco’s open spaces has increased six-fold.

The trend has advocates for the homeless crying foul, while Rec and Park and city officials say The City is just conducting business as usual. Meanwhile, the citation increase is showing no signs of slowing down.

Through March 14, Park Patrol officers had cited nearly 700 people for sleeping, camping or being in parks after-hours from Golden Gate Park to Sue Bierman Park on the waterfront. If citations continue at that rate, the total this year would far exceed the rise seen in recent years.

In 2011, there were 165 such citations issued. By the following year, the number reached 529. Then in 2013, it hit 977. And last year, 963 were doled out.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the “very dramatic rise” in citations is “scary” and only makes it that much more difficult for homeless people to secure permanent housing.

The park citation increase directly coincides with Ed Lee’s tenure in the Mayor’s Office. He was appointed interim mayor in early 2011 and elected to a four-year term later that year. The rise also coincides with an economic upswing in The City that helped make the cost of living and housing out of reach for many.

When asked to explain the increase, Rec and Park spokeswoman Connie Chan said in an email that the department enforces “the park code as resources allow.”

“We work to encourage healthy and safe activities in our parks, and as a result of stepped up enforcement we have seen an increase in citations of all types, not just illegal camping and sleeping,” the email said. The department has increased the number of Park Patrol officers from 21 in 2011 to 30 currently.

Parks are patrolled 24 hours a day, seven days week, with two to four officers working each shift. Staffing increases during special events. Chan referred all homeless-related questions to the Mayor’s Office. Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for Lee, said the citation increase is a matter of public safety.

“The Recreation and Park Department enforces a number of laws to keep parks safe for everyone,” she said, “and the mayor has provided more resources over the last few years to increase park patrols to help keep all of our parks safe and clean.”

Falvey added that the stepped-up enforcement comes while the Mayor’s Office “significantly increased its homeless outreach throughout The City to connect people in need with services.”

The laws that prohibit camping in parks and no sleeping date back to the end of 1981, when the nation’s homeless population increased during the Reagan administration. Sleeping was initially banned between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and later modified to between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The citation data was provided by Rec and Park, which is run by Phil Ginsburg, at the request of The San Francisco Examiner. The department was unable to provide citation data prior to 2011.

In 2013, the Board of Supervisors, in a 6-5 vote, elected to close down parks between midnight and 5 a.m. That law took effect in 2014. But citations issued last year and this year for being in parks when they are closed are a small fraction of the three types of citations examined, the data show.

In February alone, there were 362 citations for sleeping, camping or being in the area after-hours. And that same month, there were 286 citations issued for camping, with the majority issued in various Golden Gate Park locations. Other parks had notable numbers as well in February. In Civic Center Plaza, just outside City Hall, 24 camping citations were issued. And there were four at Buena Vista Park in the Haight and three in Sue Bierman Park along The Embarcadero. Of the total February citations, 68 were for sleeping and eight for being in parks after-hours.

The park citations increase follows a trend in cities throughout the state, according to a February report by the UC Berkeley School of Law that found an “increasing enactment and enforcement of anti-homeless laws in California.”

Park Patrol citations are a smaller subset of the citywide enforcement of anti-homeless laws. For instance, police officers issue about 3,000 citations per year for violations of city codes prohibiting sleeping, camping, standing, sitting, resting and soliciting in public, the UC Berkeley report said.

No ticket leads a homeless person into housing, but instead “shackles them to the street,” Friedenbach said.

It’s an opinion echoed in the report: “Not only do existing enforcement patterns deprive homeless people of means to escape poverty, but they also burden cities with significant financial costs while raising legal questions.”

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