Golden Gate Park homeless ignore outreach efforts

They have been offered services and also been punished with citations for the past two years, but dozens of habitual homeless people in Golden Gate Park have ignored both, vexing city officials who are working to remove encampments.

Though the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has made homelessness one of the key issues of his administration, said the number of homeless in the park is diminishing, those on the front lines say a group of campers remains intent on staying in the park.

The Examiner accompanied a Park Patrol team — two police officers, one park ranger and one homeless outreach coordinator — as it scoured Golden Gate Park between 4:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. looking for campers. The patrol started on the eastern edge of the park at Stanyan Street, with the police Jeep pointing its bright spotlights into the bushes and other nooks and crannies where homeless people
are known to camp.

The search revealed nine sleeping transients before sunrise, but of those, seven were well-known to the team.

All were given citations, which can range from infractions such as illegal camping to misdemeanors like trespassing, but also offered food and possibly a bed for the following night. Only two talked to the Homeless Outreach Team representative on hand and they only agreed to an assessment of their needs.

“I’ve got an appointment at 1 or 11:30 or something,” Michael Theurer said. He’s almost 70 years old and said he has lived in or around the park for five years.

The citations are processed through the court system like traffic violations. They add up to a warrant if ignored. The warrants can lead to a night in jail if an officer scans the illegal camper’s ID, but the person is usually back on the street the next day, police Lt. Mary Stasko said.

Theurer did not seem concerned about the citation.

“I’m just waiting for them to leave so I can find somewhere to go back to sleep,” he said.

Park Ranger Robert Brigham does patrols five mornings a week and knows Theurer.

When the program first started, officials cited 175 to 200 campers a week, but now it’s down to about 25 per week, according to the Mayor’s Office.

“But the ones who are left are usually the hard-core homeless,” Stasko said.

In a move to have more time to tackle the issue of those who will not stop sleeping in the park, Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg said he wants to extend the efforts for an extra half-hour every morning.

“It’s definitely one of our more vexing challenges,” he said.

But two officers from the Park Police Station, which is mere footsteps away from where three transients were cited that morning, find and cite illegal campers every day, Stasko said.

“It’s like moving vegetables around on a plate,” she said. “We do it enough and they say, ‘What the heck? I’m going somewhere else.’ And they move to somewhere else in the park or another one entirely.”

Helpful punishment

There is a “grab bag” of infractions and misdemeanors that can be issued to illegal campers that typically cost about $75 to $100, according to Brian Buckelew, a spokesman for District Attorney Kamala Harris. Punishment is not a priority, he said. The idea is to leverage the citations to get the transients help, and to keep a safe environment in city parks.

Infractions

  • Camping
  • Sleeping
  • Consumption of alcohol in a park
  • Public nuisance

Possible misdemeanors

  • Trespassing
  • Public intoxication

Source: District Attorney’s Office

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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