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Report Finds Criminalization Increasing Nationwide
San Francisco's enactment of status offenses, such as the sit-lie law, reflect a national trend, says a homeless advocacy organization's new report.
Criminalizing homelessness has gone national.
That’s not to say Congress passed a law outlawing people without a place to live or the Supreme Court ruled living without a permanent roof over one’s head as unconstitutional.
No, it means major media outlets in the U.S. — the New York Times, National Public Radio and MSNBC, to name a few — have started paying attention to the growing trend of communities enacting and enforcing laws against sleeping on sidewalks, sleeping outdoors and others deemed as “quality of life” offenses.
This new attention from the mainstream media stems from a report released last month by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization found an increase of status-offense statutes since 2011 in the 187 cities it studied. According to the NLCHP, such an enforcement-laden approach is a misplaced priority.
“There is a severe shortage of affordable housing and a lack of emergency shelter options in our communities, leaving homeless people with no choice but to perform basic acts of survival in public spaces,” said executive director Maria Foscarinis. “Despite a lack of any available alternatives, more cities are choosing to turn the necessary conduct of homeless people into criminal activity. Such laws threaten the human and constitutional rights of homeless people, impose unnecessary costs on cities, and do nothing to solve the problems they purport to address.”
The NLCHP also cited figures from the Western Regional Advocacy Project, showing that three-fourths of homeless people surveyed nationwide did not know of a safe and legal place to sleep outdoors.
WRAP also reported high levels of harassment from police for sitting, sleeping or hanging out.
San Francisco was one of the cities the NLCHP examined for laws that restrict homeless people from being in certain locations or engaging in certain activities, such as camping or panhandling.
The Coalition on Homelessness has historically opposed such measures, decrying them as punitive. Most entail fines — which left unpaid — could lead to jail time and act as a barrier to employment and housing.
The following are a few of San Francisco ordinances:
Sit-lie. This law, which took effect in 2011 after a ballot campaign, prohibits sitting and lying in sidewalks throughout the city from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. A City Hall Fellows report found it was enforced most often in the Haight-Ashbury district, while not deterring such activity. The ordinance included a directive to refer sidewalk sitters to homeless services — on the citation are the numbers to the 311 and 211 telephone services.
Park Plaza expansion. Enacted in 2012, this ordinance banned overnight sleeping at the Harvey Milk and Jane Warner plazas in the Castro district by extending them under existing parks code regulation. Before it passed on a 6-5 vote at the Board of Supervisors, the ordinance included a provision that was later removed that would have banned shopping carts from the plazas.
Closure of city parks. The Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance in 2013 closing 36 parks and plazas from midnight to 5 a.m. after the Civil Grand Jury recommended it as a way to reduce the numbers of homeless people camping in Golden Gate Park. Before this law was enacted, police routinely rousted encampments and cited the people staying in them. Opponents of the ordinance said it would disproportionately affect homeless folk who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender — 29 percent of the population, by the city’s estimate.
Large vehicle ban. The board also approved a pilot program in 2013. This law prohibits vehicles 22 feet wide or 7 feet tall from overnight parking where signs are in place, affecting vehicularly housed people. Initially, the ban covered the Outer Sunset and Bayview neighborhoods. This year, more neighborhoods, such as the Mission and Potrero Hill, were added. In response to pleas from large-vehicle dwellers, the city found room at Treasure Island that could accommodate three parking spaces. Efforts for a safe parking program at city churches are underway.