The crime of being homeless

San Francisco prosecutors crack down on quality-of-life crimes

Sleeping in the park, urinating in public, blocking the sidewalk, trespassing, drinking in public — these and about 10 other infractions are commonly and collectively known as "quality of life" crimes because they affect the condition of the common spaces we all share in San Francisco.

For a homeless individual, they're also called "status" crimes, committed in the commons because there is no private place to sleep, go to the bathroom, or crack a beer. For years the District Attorney's Office hasn't bothered to allocate time or resources to prosecute these petty crimes, and advocates for the rights of homeless people have contended that to do so results in unfair persecution of those who have no place to call home.

Elisa Della-Piana is an attorney with the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and has spent much of the past three years in traffic court arguing against fines for homeless people who have received quality-of-life citations. As of this summer, Della-Piana said things have changed down at the Hall of Justice.

Now every time she stands up to represent a homeless person in traffic court, someone from the DA's Office gets up too, fighting for the other side. Though there's no way to tell from the traffic court calendar if the defendant is homeless, Della-Piana and Christina Brown, another attorney who represents through the Lawyer's Committee, have witnessed prosecutors ignore quality-of-life citations that didn't appear to have been collected by homeless people.

"When the person is homeless and the DA stands up and prosecutes, that's selective prosecution. They've done that in the past with other populations in San Francisco," Jenny Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said, citing historic crackdowns on queers and Asians.

Deputy district attorney Paul Henderson denied the DA's Office is selectively prosecuting only quality-of-life citations received by homeless individuals. "We're prosecuting all of them," he told the Guardian, confirming this is a new task for the office. "In the past the DA's Office wasn't staffed to have people in the courtroom. I think we're there every day now." He said more staff has been hired, and a team he heads is now devoted to the issue.

When asked why this was a new priority for the DA's Office, Henderson said, "We felt that people weren't getting the help they needed. The public's interest wasn't being served. [These issues] were not getting addressed in the traffic court without the DA being there. Neighborhoods and communities have been complaining about the lack of responsiveness, and so we're trying to address that."

Henderson called the day in court an open door for a homeless person to walk through and access services. "We want to handle them responsibly to make sure there's some accountability for breaking the law, but try to do it in a way that's an intervention."

But advocates for homeless rights say that's not what happens.

"They'll tell you we're there to offer services to homeless individuals," Della-Piana said. "Which is a piece of paper. In fact, what they have is the same list of services the police pass out. They're not actually doing anything to connect people to the services. They're just offering the list. They could offer those services in the street. There's no reason to go through the court system."

This list of homeless resources is updated every six months by the San Francisco Police Department's Operation Outreach and is offered on the street, according to Lt. David Lazar, leader of the 20-officer branch of the SFPD that interfaces directly with the homeless population.

"The accountability is a problem, and the process they go through is not working," Lazar said.