A fine dilemma - Page 2

Increased citations often hinder homeless youth from finding better life

A youth who sleeps in Golden Gate Park flips through his fines.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Not all street kids want out, but Chase is tired of roaming. He says he kicked his heroin habit, and now spends his time educating himself in libraries and looking for a steady job. He dreams of becoming a librarian.

Most importantly, he's seeking a permanent place to call home. But he's in a hole he can't dig out of: if he doesn't find housing he'll keep accruing camping citations, and finding housing is difficult as long as the citations burden him financially. Applying for certain types of housing can be difficult with the specter of criminal history hovering over you.

"Many programs turn people away who have warrants," Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness said. As citations go unpaid, youth are issued arrest warrants. And although some programs work to clear records of offenders, like the Public Defender's Office's Clean Slate program, camping violations are often infractions — Clean Slate advertises helping offenders reduce felonies to misdemeanors.

A San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report last year put the problem succinctly: "The current system of issuing citations for nighttime sleeping and camping in the Park has not been effective in reducing the number of park dwellers."

Bevan Dufty, the director of the mayor's homeless program, HOPE, said he understands the need to enforce the law, but that perhaps that enforcement is detrimental to permanent housing solutions.

"Citations more often than not result in a barrier to housing people," he said. But camping citations are just one of many types of citations harrying the homeless, he said. Dufty told us of a young woman who is now 23, but has been homeless since she was 15. He went with her to court to try to minimize her many citations, which made her ineligible for some services.

"The fundamental goal," he said, "should be trying to get people housed."

Dufty said he would try to help Chase personally, and we're now in efforts to connect them.

Chase may have many fines built up, but a pro bono attorney he met through Project Homeless Connect is helping him navigate the legal system. Recently, his effort to find housing and get a job have taken on a dangerous edge of necessity. Chase recently learned he is HIV-positive.

"I just found out six months ago," he said. It's forced him to make decisions about where to camp, based on his energy levels and proximity to services. "If I walk too much I'm not utilizing my food and energy properly."

Many of the street kids are roamers, but for those like Chase who want to find permanency and stability, it can almost seem like the city is giving them a help up with one hand and pushing them back out onto the street with another.

But Chase maintains positivity about life.

"I was here a few months ago and someone had a telescope out here, we could see the nine moons of Jupiter lined up. It was powerful," Chase said. "I have an empathetic viewpoint now that I've been through all this. I don't have a choice."