Homeless disconnect

Ticketing the homeless wastes millions of taxpayer dollars

The shelter of a slim door frame, the outstretched palm asking for a dime: this is how hundreds of San Francisco's homeless get by, once the soup kitchens close and the shelters cry "No Vacancy."
But panhandling, blocking the sidewalks, and lodging in public are a few of the 15 quality-of-life violations for which the San Francisco Police Department regularly issues citations. In the 30 months that Mayor Gavin Newsom has been in office, the cops have issued more than 31,000 such tickets.
And according to a study by Religious Witness with Homeless People, it's been a colossal waste of money.
The study — released at a City Hall press conference Aug. 31 — revealed that more than $5.7 million in taxpayer money has been spent on police, paperwork, and court staff issuing and prosecuting these violations.
The group reviewed documents from the Police Department, Sheriff's Department, district attorney, public defender, city attorney, and the Traffic and Criminal divisions of the SF Superior Court, as well as interviewing nearly 200 homeless people about their experiences being swept off the streets and into the courtrooms and jails. According to Sister Bernie Galvin, who founded the interfaith coalition in 1993, no study of this scope and magnitude has ever been conducted in San Francisco.
"Most of these people haven't committed a crime," Galvin said. "They've received [tickets] for simply existing: the crime of being poor and on the street."
Approximately 80 percent of the citations are dismissed in the courts when the violator fails to show or can't pay the $100 fine, but then a warrant is issued for the person's arrest. Here's the rub: with an active arrest warrant, a homeless person can't access city services, the very essentials that eliminate the need to sleep in the park and pee on a tree.
"We're spending all this money, and the result is counterproductive," said Elisa Della-Piana, a legal advocate for the homeless.
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, one of several religious leaders, lawyers, and homeless advocates at the press conference, pointed out that a simple background check for employment or housing would reveal the arrest warrant. "Housing, jobs, drug treatment, federal and state benefits are all threatened by these little green pieces of paper," he said, gesturing to the mountain of paper violations stacked on a nearby tabletop.
"If you're homeless on the street and receive a citation for over $100, this is a Kafkaesque moment," he went on to say. Homeless people are currently granted $59 of public money a month under Newsom's Care not Cash program, down from $419.
Newsom has said he's reduced the number of quality-of-life citations by 17 percent; however, Galvin contends that number draws from a pool of eight possible violations when there are actually 15 that fall in the category. Within that 15, some have doubled in number, with public camping violations having tripled.
While Galvin made a point of commending the work Newsom's Project Homeless Connect has done in galvanizing volunteers and reaching about 1,000 people in need, she said, "Until we have the capacity to meet the needs of all these other people, it's morally unjust to criminalize them."
"I went to Project Homeless Connect, and they really helped me. Two days later, they arrested me for not paying my tickets," said one of the homeless people interviewed for the study. Another said, "I never got a ticket in my life for anything, then I lost my job, couldn't pay my rent, became homeless. I got tickets now and probably warrants all for just being in the park. They just keep beating you down."
Galvin added that Newsom has not responded to four letters requesting a meeting. "This is the first mayor who's refused to meet with us," she said of Religious Witness, which got its start fighting Mayor Frank Jordan's tough-love Matrix policy of the ’90s. "Mayor Newsom is responsible for this city," she said.