What are safe streets?

Mayoral task force looks for ways to protect people in San Francisco — from the homeless
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amanda@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Streets and Neighborhoods workgroup, convened by Mayor Gavin Newsom, sat down to its seventh meeting Sept. 9 "to analyze and understand the key issues impacting safety on our streets and formulate recommendations for needed improvement with the goal of creating a safe environment on our streets for everyone."

Some of the top dogs on public safety were at the table, including Police Chief Heather Fong, fire department Capt. Pete Howes, representatives from the district attorney and public defender's offices, and Kevin Ryan of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, who co-chairs the group.

Were they here to discuss the recent spike in shootings in the Mission District? The murder of a Western Addition teenager three days earlier? The effectiveness of gang injunctions in those neighborhoods? The upcoming march on City Hall of students from June Jordan High School demanding leadership from the mayor on the rise in violence?

Not really. A quick survey of the agenda indicated most of the talk would be focused on another great threat to public safety: homeless people.

"One of the things we never talked about is what are the specific undesirable behaviors we're focusing on," facilitator Gary Koenig said to the group. Wielding a dry-erase marker at the whiteboard, he probed further, "In other words, the objective we set for ourselves had to do with safety on the streets. So what are the objectionable behaviors that make the street unsafe or make the street be perceived as unsafe by others?"

"Shooting people," blurted Seth Katzman, a representative from the Human Services Network, a coalition of nonprofits.

The room erupted in laughter.

"I'm going to keep bringing it up," he said, not laughing.

Koenig asked what other activities they were targeting, and a more telling picture emerged: drug dealing, aggressive panhandling, blocking the sidewalk, public urination and defecation, littering, intimidation.

"On intimidation," said Chief Fong, "if you have someone walking down the street and they're yelling out or blasting out, sometimes they're talking to themselves and all of a sudden, ahh! People don't know how to respond and think that maybe there's going to be a next step in terms of some kind of aggressive behavior."

"Would you call that scary behavior?" asked Koenig, marker poised to note.

"Just kind of unpredictable behavior in terms of how someone's carrying themselves. They haven't committed a crime, but ..." Fong trailed off.

Koenig added "unpredictable behavior" to the list. "Remember, we're really not talking about crimes here," he said. "We're talking about what are we focusing on to help improve safety and the sense of safety on our streets."

That's the real mission of the group: to make downtown more comfortable for tourists, shoppers, business owners, and condo residents; and more uncomfortable for homeless and poor people panhandling, loitering, urinating in public, acting strangely, getting loaded, or sleeping on the streets.

The group was clearly weighted toward enforcement, but coordinated with buy-in from those who demonize the homeless and those who defend them: Ryan, a law-and-order Republican, shares chair duties with the Rev. John Hardin, executive director of the homeless services nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation.