The price of the sweeps

Cracking down on the homeless costs taxpayers millions
Is this a crime?
Guardian photo by Neil Motteram

The number of homeless individuals slapped with quality-of-life citations and the cost to the city of processing those citations reached new highs in the past 14 months, according to a study released by Religious Witness with Homeless People. San Francisco taxpayers have paid more than $2 million for more than 15,000 citations issued to people for crimes committed because they have no place to live.

"The quality-of-life citation ... begins an extremely expensive process," said Michael Bien, a lawyer on the steering committee of Religious Witness, an interfaith activist group started in 1993 by Sister Bernie Galvin.

The study, released at an Oct. 4 press conference, was based on documents provided by various city departments. The authors collated the costs from the initial ticket issued by a cop through the entire court process, including the new price of prosecution by the District Attorney's Office (see "The Crime of Being Homeless," 10/3/07).

The results are an update of a similar survey conducted last year (see "Homeless Disconnect," 9/5/06). Collectively, the two studies found that a total of 46,684 citations have been issued to homeless people, at a cost of more than $7.8 million, since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office.

But the mayor might not want you to know that. While Religious Witness was unveiling the study at a press conference in the South Light Court of City Hall, the mayor was hosting a simultaneous event about his heavily promoted Care Not Cash program, which provides homeless people with services and housing instead of the money they once received through the County Adult Assistance Program.

"What really bothers me," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the crowd gathered to hear Religious Witness, "is that we learn at the last minute that Mayor Newsom decides to have a press conference at the exact same time. To me, that couldn't be more base and exhibitive of bad form ... to try and upstage a press conference like this." He said the mayor's administration should be working with organizations like Religious Witness, not competing against them.


Galvin expressed dismay that the mayor chose not to attend, on top of scheduling a competing press conference on the issue of homelessness. "We've never had a press conference where we didn't have full press coverage," Galvin said.

"We've been trying to meet with Mayor Newsom since the day he took office," Bien said. "He hasn't even given us the dignity of a response."

Newsom's press secretary, Nathan Ballard, said he knew nothing about the event until he returned from his boss's fete at the Pierre Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel on Jones Street that houses some Care Not Cash recipients. He denied any intention to detract attention from Religious Witness's study. "I chose to do this a couple of weeks ago. There's no deep, dark conspiracy," Ballard said. The day was chosen to announce that Care Not Cash had "reached a significant milestone of housing over 2,000 formerly homeless individuals," according to a press release.

Actually, the Care Not Cash program exceeded the 2,000 mark in August, according to statistics posted on the mayor's Web site.

This is not the first time the mayor has scheduled a competing press conference. In June, on the same day the Board of Supervisors passed the city's Community Choice Aggregation plan for more city-owned renewable energy, the mayor announced a new partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., to study tidal power (see "Turning the Tides," 6/27/07).

Religious Witness chose Oct. 4 to release the study results because it's the Feast of St. Francis, a day celebrating the city's patron saint, "a man known to have enormous compassion," Father Louie Vitale explained.