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Indybay Feature
"Quality of Life" Enforcement in San Francisco - A History of Failure
by Fault Lines Article - Chance Martin
Wednesday Dec 22nd, 2004 1:10 PM

"Quality of Life" Enforcement in San Francisco -
A History of Failure

RobertR.jpg"By Chance Martin

As the numbers of Americans living in poverty and homelessness continue to spiral upward, very little has been done to correct the systemic failures of our state and federal governments that created this crisis. Affordable housing, health care, education and job development programs have been decimated by pro-business legislators for most of the past quarter century. And the empty rhetoric of “personal responsibility” tells us that homeless people themselves are to blame for their condition.

More and more of us find ourselves homeless or at risk of homelessness, while programs and services that can effectively reduce homelessness are cut, even in years of budget surpluses. In this scenario, San Francisco’s policymakers increasingly rely on the one publicly-funded institution that is never underfunded or lacking capacity: our criminal justice system. Instead of providing housing or services, some elected officials instead resort to the political expediency of criminalizing behaviors found among homeless people, and selectively enforcing these laws at the cost of the homeless individual’s constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights.

This reliance on the criminal justice system to deal with homelessness issues has earned San Francisco the 8th meanest city position in a recent study conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The study, Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States, details the legal environment that homeless people face in some 179 communities in 48 states, providing both analytic and anecdotal accounts.

While arguments could well be made that adding police and court costs to the provision of basic homeless services only makes them more expensive to provide, and that court referrals to treatment are prioritized at the cost of those voluntarily seeking such services, the following timeline makes the most compelling argument. As you read this historical record of institutionalized civil rights abuses ask yourself:

If these so-called Quality of Life laws are effective at reducing homelessness, don’t you think San Franciscans would see some tangible results after 12 years?

1992 - Jordan Administration

After the passage of Prop J (put on the ballot by Mayor Jordan), the City outlaws aggressive panhandling.

Alvord Lake (part of Golden Gate Park at Haight and Stanyan) was closed during the evening.


The Matrix Program began. Between August and December, 5,602 citations are issued to homeless people for Quality of Life offenses. More citations for sleeping and camping in the parks, drinking in public, obstructing the sidewalk and sleeping in the doorways were issued in the first months of Matrix than in the five previous years combined.

The Transbay Bus Terminal, home to more than 100 homeless people, locked its doors to them. A program serving many of the Terminal’s severely mentally ill residents was also shut down.

Virtually every City park was closed at night by the Rec. and Park Commission.

Food Not Bombs began getting arrested for serving food to homeless people in Civic Center Plaza.


After the passage of Prop J put on the ballot by Mayor Jordan, panhandling around ATM machines was prohibited.

After the passage of Prop V put on the ballot by Mayor Jordan, all single adult welfare recipients began being fingerprinted.

“No parking from 2:00am to 6:00am” signs were put up by the Port Authority on a street in China Basin where most of the City’s mobile residents resided.

Mayor Jordan declared to the media that there were armed criminals posing as homeless people and using their shopping carts to transport weapons. He ordered the SFPD to arrest people in possession of shopping carts. The people of San Francisco openly express their outrage at this proposal and no one gets arrested.

11,562 citations issued for life-sustaining activities.


In August, Mayor Jordan planned Matrix II, “Take back our Parks,” a multi-departmental intensive sweep of Golden Gate Park, and uses it as a media moment in his mayoral campaign. Homeless people lost property and were displaced.

Mayor Jordan ran an unsuccessful ballot measure (Prop M) to prohibit sitting and lying in commercial districts around the City.

14,276 citations were issued for life-sustaining activities.

1996 - Brown Administration

50 homeless people were evicted from a lot in the Bayview referred to as “Land of the Lost”. The City settled out of court.

Mayor Brown declares Matrix is over.

SFPD formed “Operation Park.” 2-6 police officers on each shift were assigned to roust and cite homeless people in the parks of their district.

17,532 citations were issued for life-sustaining activities.


Massive sweeps of Golden Gate Park began. Mayor Brown asked to borrow the Oakland Police Dept.’s night vision-equipped helicopter to locate homeless people illegally sleeping in the park, but was denied. Homeless people lost property and were displaced from the park. Homeless people were prohibited by the SFPD and DPW from taking their property from the park and were told they could retrieve it another day. Since this time, a special crew of Rec. & Park employees was been formed and maintained in order to identify and destroy homeless encampments in parks around the city.

An encampment between Bayshore and highway 101 was cleared by Caltrans and the CHP after the 25 residents organized a massive cleanup. Caltrans created a special unit that sweeps homeless people and their property from under bridges and highways.

15,671 citations issued for life-sustaining activities.


“No Loitering or Sleeping” signs are placed in public parks around the city.

Civic Center Plaza is remodeled, removing the fountain, adding two children’s playgrounds, and the park is cleared of homeless people. A police officer was assigned to monitor the park.

A huge encampment was swept across the street from the now Pacific Bell Park. The residents negotiated with the private property owner and worked out a plan for residents to vacate the property that gave them some time. Many residents relocated to the Mission Rock shelter that opened nearby during the same time. City Outreach workers helped with the transition.

The Board of Supervisors made it illegal to drink in parks where poor people congregate (Round 1).

The Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance making it possible for police to cite people for camping and sleeping in UN and Hallidie Plazas.
Caltrans did a massive sweep of property under bridges and highways.

Castro merchants organized an anti-panhandling campaign called “Create Change” that urged people to give money to charities, not panhandlers.

The District Attorney began a “3 strikes and you’re out” policy for people found drunk in public.

18,590 citations issued for life-sustaining activities.


Officers from the North Beach District take photographs of homeless people claiming they were creating a scrapbook. They distributed copies of the pictures to local merchants ordering them not to sell alcohol to anyone in the pictures because they were “habitual drunkards.” The City settled the ensuing lawsuit out of court. The story made Reader’s Digest.

The Rec. and Park Commission made it illegal to drink in parks where poor people congregate (Round 2).

An encampment near Battery and Broadway was swept by DPW and a fence was erected by Caltrans and again, Caltrans did a massive sweep of property under bridges and highways.

The Mission Rock shelter is closed. Nearly 45 people documented that their property was destroyed during the sloppy closure.

Supervisor Amos Brown introduced anti-panhandling legislation, calling it the “Pedestrian Safety Act.” The Board of Supervisors voted against it.

Mayor Brown ordered homeless people to be charged with felonies if found in possession of a shopping cart. After a week of bad press, he then claimed he never ordered it.

23,871 citations were issued for life-sustaining activities.


The City Attorney began prosecuting homeless people in traffic court for Quality of Life offenses. This program cost the city $250,000 and was a dismal failure in its stated purpose of connecting homeless people with the services they supposedly refuse.

A permanent fence is erected around the DPW station at McAllister and Larkin Streets after our friend Trent is found there dead from an overdose.

17,954 citations were issued for life-sustaining activities.


UN Plaza starts its remodeling, lawns are closed, the fountain is shut down. All benches are removed in a midnight attack, costing the city $24,000 in overtime.

A large encampment under the Cesar Chavez Circle highway overpasses was swept by DPW. Property belonging to homeless residents was videotaped being thrown into the back of a city garbage truck. After the tape aired on a local news channel, Mayor Brown claimed the incident was staged by homeless advocates, and the homeless person the newscrews interviewed was an actor. 75 homeless people were displaced and many lost property. A fence was erected by Caltrans.

The District Attorney replaces the City Attorney in traffic court prosecuting Quality of Life offenses until the new fiscal year began and such enforcement was taken out of DA’s budget.

The District Attorney started prosecuting California Penal Code 647(j), a misdemeanor that makes it illegal to lodge on public or private property. Homeless people begin to spend more time in jail.

The City spends $30.8 million to incarcerate homeless people.

9,134 citations issued for life-sustaining activities.


A large encampment is swept from Berry Street. 100 homeless people are displaced and a fence was erected by DPW. The City spent $13,644 on this sweep not including the costs for the extensive police presence on the day of the sweep.

Day Laborers along Cesar Chavez Street began receiving petty offense tickets from the SFPD in an effort to drive them from the area.

DPW started Operation Scrubdown, targeting downtown streets and alleys. Workers would move homeless encampments then hose down the area with nasty chemicals making it impossible to return to that spot. DPW estimated that Operation Scrubdown cost the City $11,000 every day.

The Board of Supervisors passed a new law prohibiting urinating and defecating in public, but no new public bathrooms were opened.

Three dogs belonging to homeless people were shot by the SFPD within three months.

6,957 citations issued for life-sustaining activities. An additional 2,035 misdemeanor lodging citations are also issued.


“No habitating in your vehicle between 10:00pm and 6:00am” signs are put up in China Basin and Bayview districts.

Homeless people living and caring for the property behind Laguna Honda hospital were relocated.

People accessing City-funded homeless services were required to be electronically fingerprinted and photographed before receiving any services.

Homeless people were SWEPT OUT OF DOLORES PARK by SFPD. A nearby drop-in center was closed indefinitely.

10,570 citations were issued for life-sustaining activities.

A homeless man receives 30 days in jail as his sentence for a lodging citation.

2004 - Newsom Administration

In a two month period, the San Francisco Police Department issued over 3,500 citations for illegal lodging, using the threat of citations to keep countless others from sleeping, eating, and sitting in public places.

The new anti-panhandling law (Proposition M), passed in November of 2003 and went into effect at the end of May 2004. This law tightens the law against of panhandling and defines aggressive panhandling for the city. While aggressive panhandling was already illegal, this law tightens restrictions against panhandling near ATMs, traffic dividers, and highway ramps.

“Operation Tenderloin Scrub Down” uses water trucks to wash down the city’s sidewalks two and three times daily, spraying homeless people and their belongings if they are not quick enough to move.

Care Not Cash (CNC) involuntarily reduces welfare payments and instead puts this money towards the cost of housing. Unfortunately, much of this shelter existed before CNC was passed, and it is actually utilized less since the implementation of CNC.