Sleeping is a crime in San Francisco

Last week, an encampment of elderly black people near our office in the Tenderloin was cleared out. The men don’t bother folks, but they don’t move very fast either. After a while, the police officers got frustrated with how long it was taking for them to move across the street and threw their belongings in a truck. Gone went their camping gear and their medicines. No small loss when you’re suffering from extreme destitution.

At a time when the Department of Justice is calling the citation, arrest and forced displacement of homeless people for sleeping cruel and unusual punishment, new data from the San Francisco Police Department indicates it is fully engaged in this practice.

A total of 13,390 citations were given to homeless people last year for anti-homeless “offenses,” including panhandling, trespassing, urination/defecation, drinking in public or other activities that homeless people have no other choice but to perform in public. This amounts to 258 citations a week, or 37 a day. Of those, 11,920 citations were issued for sleeping or sitting in public spaces alone.

The department is on track to issue 30 percent more citations this year for resting in public than in 2014, according to SFPD data. This is in direct contrast to recent statements by San Francisco policymakers that The City does not criminalize homeless people.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A recent study by researchers at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center and the Coalition on Homelessness not only found the enforcement of such laws unconstitutional, but ineffective and counterproductive. The findings indicate that the majority (70 percent) of the affected people had received at least one citation in the past year with nearly 50 percent of those living unsheltered receiving five or more. As homeless folks cannot afford to pay the fines, 90 percent of citations went unpaid.

Unpaid tickets can lead to warrants, bad credit and arrests, all of which creates a barrier to obtaining work, housing and exiting homelessness. The current system of mass citation was also found to cost The City millions in policing and court costs.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Lee announced this week that he plans to clear homeless people out for the Super Bowl party and promised them housing that has already been promised to folks at the Navigation Center.

On Aug. 6, the DOJ filed a statement of interest brief in a case opposing an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. According to a press statement issued by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, “Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights.”

Less then a week later, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness took it a step futher by releasing official guidance for communities coping with the growth of homeless encampments. The guide emphasizes that forced dispersal of homeless encampments is not an appropriate intervention and can make it more difficult to have lasting positive housing and services outcomes.

In a further step, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released statements on Aug. 17 that it is considering reductions of homeless housing and services funding for those local governments, which pass anti-homeless laws.

This is great news for human rights, and it should be a serious wake up call for San Francisco. Housing has long been recognized as the true solution to homelessness. Our city officials need to stop relying on police and get serious.

We have a lot of affordable housing in the pipeline; we have a lot of city-owned property. Housing for homeless people should be the priority at those sites.

Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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