Housing should come before police

It is indeed a wild time of contradictions for our beloved San Francisco. We have a booming economy, yet we also have increasing poverty. The City is seeing robust housing production, yet meanwhile a surge in homelessness. New restaurants are opening on many corners, yet hunger is just outside the door. We have soaring numbers of jobs in tech, yet we recently experienced increased drop-out rates for high school students.

In the midst of all this, many of our city officials have gone dangerously mad and are calling for the building of a complete police state with the consequential and preposterous crowding of our jails to protect all that gold gilded property that now fills our city.

In the midst of the largest housing crisis this city has faced since the Great Depression, next year The City is proposing eight new academy classes for San Francisco police officers over the next two years at a cost of a whopping $61.3 million.

Supervisor Scott Weiner is calling for even more police as a way to deter crime, even though studies do not equate additional police with reduction of crime. He wants to exceed even the minimum mandates, effectively putting a bored, well-paid cop on every corner and filling up our jails again with petty poverty related offences.

Meanwhile, we have a situation where the San Francisco Police Department has a lot of work to do internally — high numbers of resisting arrests charges of African Americans even when they were not charged with anything else, and the unearthing of grotesquely racist,
and homophobic texts between officers.

We live in a racist society — good people along with bad people suffer from it, and police officers are not immune. However, we hold our officers to a higher standard, as they are bequeathed with additional powers, they carry lethal weapons and are called on to cite and arrest. Given the embattled state of the police department, bringing on more officers seems to be diametrically opposite to what San Francisco needs. However, even if our entire department were perfect, it is an absurd use of city money at this time.

At a public hearing last year on the jail expansion, San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr stated there is a need for a new jail because he was bringing on new officers and therefore arrests would go up as well. Meanwhile, racial bias rages on in San Francisco, with blacks making up 44 percent of arrests but just 6 percent of the San Franciscans overall. Most drug arrests were of black people — 46 percent in 2014 —yet blacks do not have higher rates of drug use.

African Americans are hit hard by homelessness as well, making up half the homeless family population seeking shelter. We are losing our families in San Francisco, yet 40 percent of woman in jail have children. Mothers are also hit hard by homelessness, 76 percent of homeless families are led by single parents.

A police officer recently told me that 30 percent of his calls at Mission station were in response to complaints about homelessness. For every one new officer trained, The City can house about 26 homeless people through subsidies. That is just for training, the cost of the police officer with benefits is $175,000 after that. By choosing to invest in housing instead of expanded number of police, we would free up police time, keep our jail population small and best of all help solve what is most residents’ top concern.

As crazy as our city’s contradictions, they pale in comparison to our housing crisis. The use of evictions as a tool for landlords to increase revenues is rising, driving former tenants into homelessness, and out of The City.

In the past five years, documentable evictions have increased 54.7 percent. We have a skyrocketing number of children experiencing homelessness, doubling since 2007, and seriously damaging our young minds.

The police, the criminal justice system and homelessness are intertwined, because the very presence of homeless people solicits police complaints. We have looked closely at this, and have found that citing and jailing of homeless people for sleeping, sitting and resting increase simply because more law enforcement is present. This happened when they hired more park rangers, homeless people were cited at six times the rate — not for actual crimes — but for camping, fines that they cannot pay, and which saddle them with bad credit, lost licenses, and prevent them for accessing public housing.

We already know that more police will mean more people in jail for such petty offense, but will not lead to a reduction in crime. Just dream what we can do with $61.3 million! This is equal to the amount of money The City is paying currently to house 6,000 formerly homeless people!

Offering our people a place to live and an opportunity to succeed is the very best way to make them safe.

John Avalos is a San Francisco supervisor and Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness.

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