The crime of being homeless - Page 2

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

"There's a large population we're seeing that doesn't want services." He listed three reasons: inadequacies in the shelter system, a desire to be left alone, and a mental health or substance abuse problem that impairs judgment. "If we could house absolutely everyone, what would they do during the daytime?" he asked. "You need intensive case management, job support, substance abuse support."

But homeless-rights advocates say the stability of housing is the first step toward improving the quality of life for the homeless. Della-Piana said, "Ninety-five percent of my clients come to me and say, 'I'm getting social services.' They point to something on the list and say, 'I'm doing this.' They're doing everything they're supposed to be doing, but they don't have housing yet. That's why people are still sleeping in the park."

Henderson said critics of the new tack "aren't recognizing that laws are being broken. People's qualities of life are being dragged down by these violations. If it's your street, your door, and there's feces on it every day, that affects your quality of life."

Ticketing the homeless is not a new thing. Two homeless-rights groups — Religious Witness with Homeless People and the Coalition on Homelessness — have a standing Freedom of Information Act request with San Francisco Superior Court that provides a monthly tally of the infractions likely committed primarily by homeless people. According to their data, for the past 15 years the SFPD has averaged about 13,000 quality-of-life citations per year. Last year Religious Witness released a study showing that more than 31,000 citations had been issued during Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration.

"For the police, the sheriff, and the court cost, we estimated it cost almost $6 million for those 31,000 citations," said Sister Bernie Galvin, executive director of Religious Witness. Galvin said a new study, to be released at City Hall on Oct. 4, shows that citations and costs have skyrocketed in the past 14 months. "Now we're putting in the dramatic new expense of the DA," she said, adding, "Everyone wants to prosecute a greater number. It's like it makes it justifiable to issue these 31,000 tickets if we can prosecute them. Actually, it makes it crueler and more expensive."

Media reports have characterized the tickets as empty pieces of paper, issued and then metaphorically shredded when a homeless individual fails to pay the $50 to $500 fine. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle story, Heather Knight reported that "all quality of life citations are getting dismissed." Yet when they don't — and violators either don't show up in court or can't pay the fine — infractions become misdemeanors or an arrest warrant is issued, both of which become problems for people trying to access services.

"It backfires," said Christina Brown, an associate at O'Melveny and Myers who volunteers time in traffic court representing homeless people through the Lawyer's Committee. "When people are served with warrants, they're precluded from services." Even if the person cuts a deal with the DA to access services in lieu of paying a fine, they still have to return to court to prove they've done that. If they can't get the paperwork or can't make it to the court in time, it becomes a misdemeanor.

"The criminal justice system is actually making it harder if they want to find somewhere else to sleep," said Della-Piana, who related an anecdote of a client who had a few open-container infractions. The client was afraid to go to court when she couldn't pay the fines, so a warrant was issued.