The cost of harassing the homeless

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EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has always talked about treating homeless people with compassion, is allowing the cops to do just the opposite — and it's costing the city millions. As Amanda Witherell reports on page 11, the San Francisco Police Department under the Newsom administration has issued 31,230 citations for so-called quality of life offenses like sleeping on the streets, sleeping in the parks, and panhandling. In a pioneering study, Religious Witness with Homeless People reports that issuing and prosecuting those citations cost taxpayers $5.7 million over the past two years.
This is a reminder of the failure of the Newsom administration's housing policy — and a terrible waste of law enforcement resources. The mayor needs to put a stop to it now.
Think about it: most homeless people are living on the streets because they don't have the money for housing in this famously expensive city. In the vast majority of the cases, giving someone who's broke a ticket for $100 is a colossal waste: the offender isn't going to be able to pay anyway, so the unpaid ticket turns into an arrest warrant. The next time around, the police can nab this person and put him or her in jail (costing the city $92.18 a day, according to the Sheriff's Department). In the end, 80 percent of the citations are dismissed anyway — but not before the police, the courts, the district attorney, and the sheriff run up a huge tab.
In some cases, it's just another hassle for homeless people. In other cases though, these seemingly minor tickets can rob someone of the last vestiges of a semitolerable life. The list of quotes from homeless people included with the study is, to say the least, depressing:
“They wake me up in the morning and threaten to arrest me if I don't stand up and start walking. The drop-in centers are full, so I either walk or get ticketed. I can't walk all day long."
“They took my vehicle away because I slept in it in the mornings while waiting to get another construction job. Losing my truck was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I can't get a job without my truck, so now I'm on the street."
“Just one ticket for sleeping can violate my parole, and then I'll be in [prison] with murderers.”
“I went to Project Homeless Connect, and they really helped me. Two days later, they arrested me for not paying my tickets.”
The city is facing a homicide epidemic. The police brass constantly complain that there aren't enough uniformed officers to keep the streets safe. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi is having to fight to get approval for a modest pilot program that would put exactly four officers on foot patrols in high-crime neighborhoods; that program could be funded for less than one-tenth what the city is spending harassing the homeless.
It makes absolutely no sense for the police to be wasting time issuing these sorts of citations. Sure, violent people who are a threat to the public need to be kept off the streets — but that's only a very small number of the homeless in San Francisco. Letting people sleep in the parks or in their cars isn't a solution to the homeless problem — but it's hardly a massive threat to the city's populace (and certainly not when compared to the growing murder rate).
Newsom, of course, could and should make a public commitment to spending that $5 million in a more useful and productive way. And the Police Commission should look into the Religious Witness study and direct the chief to order officers away from giving quality-of-life citations.
If none of that happens, the supervisors ought to look into this too. If the cops have the money to be chasing panhandlers and car sleepers, the budget committee should look at the department's allocation and see if some of those resources can't be better spent fighting actual crime. SFBG