A week before Christmas — a time one usually associates with good will toward men, a time of giving — Mayor Ed Lee called for “tough love” on the most destitute San Franciscans. He pitched a fit that the traffic courts dropped warrants for arrest of homeless people for such heinous crimes as sleeping and sitting. Yes, we are talking about traffic court — not exactly a hive of criminal cases.
Before last year, the courts were issuing both arrest warrants and civil assessments for unpaid fines and failures to appear, a practice that can be legally challenged. They landed on civil assessments, sending those unpaid balances to a private collections agency. This year, they dropped a chunk of the backlog because: it costs more to collect on these unpaid fines; they most likely can never be paid back anyway; and the fines burden already impoverished people with back-breaking debt that acts as a barrier to housing admittance. However, people who get tickets today will have civil assessments for unpaid tickets issued.
Last year, homeless people received more than 14,000 tickets for being so broke they have to sleep rough. Mayor “Grinch” Lee was quoted as saying that homeless people needed to be forced to accept services and he mentioned those who get multiple tickets for urinating.
I don’t know about the mayor, but I usually pee at least a couple times a day. And as the mayor knows, when bathrooms are available, outdoor peeing drops dramatically. The mayor’s comments indicate he lives in a dream world in which giving a homeless person a ticket will somehow lead them into nonexistent services.
What services he is referring to, I’m not sure. Tickets for being homeless — called “status crimes” — go to traffic court, which has no services; nor do the police who hand out the tickets. Sadly, the same week he made his announcement, the shelter wait list surpassed 1,000 people in San Francisco. The Navigation Centers kick people out after 30 days, so they have some turnover space for campers who generate complaints, but that is only temporary relief and not nearly enough at that. The number of units created for homeless people under Mayor Lee took a severe nose dive, and there is very little chance of getting off the streets that way. Under former Mayor Gavin Newsom, both mental health and substance abuse treatment programs were slaughtered wholesale, so exactly what services does that leave?
So the tough part is covered. But what about the love?
The reality is that homelessness is an independent risk factor for a number of illnesses, and homeless people are susceptible to increased health problems due to high stress, sleep deprivation and lack of access to hygiene facilities. Subsequently, they are three to four times more likely to die prematurely. Sleeping outdoors, without the warmth and protection four walls provide, is simply brutal. It is pure fantasy to think that we have thousands of people on the streets and a major housing crisis because individuals are refusing services. Only Ebenezer Scrooge would say the answer to that problem is to arrest people or send them to collections for failing to pay a ticket for sleeping on the streets.
Mayor Lee’s administration needs to spend a little less time demonizing homeless people and meddling into traffic court affairs and a lot more time getting serious about addressing the housing crisis, developing public support and identifying a revenue source for ending homelessness. They are spending less than 3 percent of their now $10 billion budget on it. They can either cut out of the current budget or find a progressive revenue source, but it needs to be done. San Francisco has the wealth, it just needs to be funneled into permanent housing and fast.
Researchers have largely associated tough love in institutions in the United States with abuse, and it is an unfortunate phrase to apply to the many San Franciscans finding themselves wet and cold this holiday season. How about instead of tough love, we just all work together to find some solutions. Continuing to wait is no longer a choice.
Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.