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San Francisco | Government & Elections | Health, Housing, and Public Services | Police State and Prisons

Campers Unhappy Over Parks Vote
by TJ Johnston for Street Sheet
Friday Nov 8th, 2013 9:58 AM
San Francisco will set uniform closing hours for public parks. While the author of a new law says he created it with public safety in mind, homeless advocates and their allies say it will further displace and criminalize people with nowhere else to go.
More than 200 homeless people will be evicted from San Francisco’s public greens after the Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a plan on Nov. 5 to shutter all parks from midnight to 5 a.m.

The ordinance, authored by Supervisor Scott Wiener, will close 36 parks overnight and forbid people from entering or staying on park grounds unless passing through specific areas. Wiener said the ordinance’s intent is to prevent theft and vandalism, not to punish people who sleep in parks. But advocates for homeless people say the ordinance further restricts when and where they can or cannot be.

“Six members of the Board of Supervisors made a tragic decision at exactly the wrong time - in the midst of a full-fledged housing crisis, they voted to close parks and plazas during the night,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “For the hundreds of people sitting up all night in plazas, waiting for the safety of sunlight to close their eyes, they now don't even have that option.”

Voting against Wiener’s proposal were Eric Mar, Jane Kim, John Avalos, David Campos and London Breed. Before her dissenting vote, Breed echoed concerns of homeless advocates had about selective enforcement of the measure on those with nowhere else to go.

“If it’s not intended to target the homeless, the firefighter or the well-groomed neighbor, who is the law designed to target? Suspicious looking people? Teenagers? Young men in hooded sweatshirts?” she said. “I’m not comfortable preemptively criminalizing a person’s presence or everyone’s presence in order to deter the few who commit those acts (of vandalism).”

“Whether this particular law passes or fails, 7,350 people will wake up tomorrow not knowing where they will sleep tomorrow night,” Breed added.

This is a hardship that compounds the fatigue besetting people without a roof over their head, such as a Buena Vista Park camper who identified himself only as Jacob D.

“This affects me personally,” he said. “Because when you are homeless, it is very exhausting just to exist or rest and having a place to lie your head or put your things down at night, and the parks allow homeless a spot to rest and put your things down.”

Yet people staying at parks will be ordered to leave as part of enforcing the law, Dennis Kern, operations director of the Recreation and Parks Department, told the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee two weeks earlier.

But sleeping and camping in public parks are already illegal. City and park police regularly visit encampments at Golden Gate Park during 4 a.m. sweeps and ticket people. Police have issued 7,150 citations to campers for Park Code violations from 2006 to 2012, according to data from the Human Services Agency.

The Coalition on Homelessness said this measure will compound homeless criminalization and divert funds from housing and services to enforcement. Unpaid tickets can lead to jail time and create another barrier to housing, financial assistance and employment, the Coalition added. Park dweller James Hanley said getting cited repeatedly is already a nuisance.

“This law would shine a light brighter than it already shows and makes things more difficult,” Hanley said. “I already have a ‘camping’ on a daily basis. I do not want any more tickets.”

In the runup to the board vote, advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people emphasized the bill’s impact on their community. On Oct. 28, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club attracted media attention with a sleep-in at Delores Park. Milk CLub president Tom Temprano said the ordinance violates the city’s spirit of openness and inclusion.

“This is yet another attack on the homeless, on queer people, poor people and people of color, and our right to exist in public space in our society,” Temprano said.

In a census of the city’s homeless people earlier this year, 29 percent of the homeless population identified themselves as LGBTQ. Living in parks provide relative safety to those who face hostility in the city shelter system and the streets.

Additionally, the Castro neighborhood — Wiener’s district and long regarded as the heart of the LGBTQ community — has the highest no-fault-eviction rate in the city. Brian Basinger, director of the AIDS Housing Alliance, criticized Wiener for inadequately protecting his constituents.

“(He) is continuing his attacks on low-income and homeless LGBTQ community members, especially people with AIDS who have been evicted by speculators from the Castro, gay Latino immigrants, children and youth and transgender women who have no other option than to shelter in the parks,” he said.

Joining Wiener in the vote were David Chiu, Malia Cohen, Norman Yee, Mark Farrell and Katy Tang.

The ordinance is scheduled to take effect in December.

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Park Code sections already enforced
Sec. 3.02 - Disobeying a posted sign
Sec. 3.12 - Illegal camping
Sec. 3.13 - Sleeping in park between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Between 40 to 200 - Estimate of homeless people at Golden Gate Park

7,150 - Citations issued to homeless people for Park Code sections from 2006-2012

Sources: San Francisco Municipal Code, Civil Grand Jury Report 2012-13, Human Services Agency