Heated debate expected for parks law

A rigorous public debate is expected today as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to tighten laws on squatting in city parks goes before the Board of Supervisors oversight committee.

The ordinance would prohibit the construction of natural shelters and ban cooking devices in city parks. Anyone sleeping in the park between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. would also be subject to citation or arrest. The current parks code prohibits sleeping between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“No person shall modify the landscape in any way in order to create a shelter, or accumulate household furniture or appliances or construction debris in any park,” the new ordinance would read.

Newsom proposed the amended ordinance in August following a pledge to clean up Golden Gate Park. According to the San Francisco Human Services Agency, 871 homeless people have been contacted since the end of July. Of those, 53 have been sent to live with friends or family and 170 have accepted housing options.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd sits on the Government Audit and Oversight Committee and said he anticipates a huge public debate on the issue. Elsbernd’s District 7 includes park space such as Stern Grove and Lake Merced.

“I will be supportive of it,” Elsbernd said. “The issue is something that I hear a great deal about from my constituents.”

San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Yomi Agunbiade is expected to argue that the ordinance would broaden the power of authorities to spot obvious encampments, according to spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis.

“We agree that this might help the complex situation in the park, not just Golden Gate Park but The City’s numerous other parks as well,” Dennis said.

She added that recent efforts to get homeless people out of the park and into shelters have been paying off. On Thursday alone, she said, eight people voluntarily accepted services and only a handful keep coming back.

But not everybody agrees that restricting use of the parks will help the homeless. Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the nonprofit group Coalition on Homelessness said she wonders where people will go when authorities crack down on campers.

“As long as we as a society refuse to provide housing for people who desperately need it, we will always have people sleeping in our parks and streets,” she said.

Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier and Chris Daly also sit on the oversight committee. Two votes are required to send the ordinance to the Board. The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. at City Hall.

bbegin@examiner.com

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