Sunday, May 9, 2021
News + Politics Why are we still pushing criminalization of homeless people?

Why are we still pushing criminalization of homeless people?

It's a political strategy that was once used against LGBT people, and it's still alive in San Francisco

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More and more evidence keeps emerging that housing-first efforts, or the placing of homeless people into housing paid for by the city, not only works in getting people off the streets, but is also much cheaper.

Yet, despite this, politicians in San Francisco continue to exploit the homeless issue at election time and push for further criminalization of a group that has been criminalized to the max. I don’t know who’s worse — the politicians who exploit the issue or the electorate that continues to vote for these measures.

Politicians are attacking homeless people as a strategy.
Politicians are attacking homeless people as a strategy.

It’s similar to how politicians exploited the vice issue in the 1960s and 1970s, pushing for more and more criminalization and law enforcement against gay men and prostitutes.

I got to thinking about this connection after a friend posted an article on my Facebook page from the website Vox about a study a couple years ago by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness that showed the region shelled out $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.”

Housing that same person for a year costs one third of that — $10,000. Central Florida is not alone in realizing this. New York and even Salt Lake City, among other places, have successfully adopted this housing first approach.

So why are politicians in San Francisco, supposedly the most liberal city in the nation, still pursuing criminalization of the homeless when the solution to homelessness is obvious?

It’s a winning political strategy. Former SF mayor Gavin Newsom exploited the homeless issue twice to win two terms in Room 200 of City Hall. The first time, it wasn’t to criminalize homelessness, it was to take away all, but $59 from homeless welfare recipients and give them a hotel room. How does one survive on $59 a month? The campaign was ugly and stirred up tons of anti-homeless sentiment. But it accomplished its goal: It got Newsom into office.

The second time, Newsom revived the city’s law prohibiting sitting or lying on a sidewalk near a business. That law was first passed in the 1970s and used against gay men in the Castro. Harvey Milk opposed it. The courts struck it down shortly after Milk’s death.

This November, two moderate SF supervisors are proposing to criminalize pitching a tent on the sidewalk (Props Q & R), which is already against the law. In one of these proposed ballot initiatives, a special unit would be created within the police department to patrol neighborhoods to look out for, among other things, encampments and other activities by the homeless.

It’s an obvious ploy to bring out moderate voters to support the more moderate supervisor candidates in the election, who will back these initiatives. Progressive candidates will no doubt oppose them. As “liberal” as San Francisco is, it’s still a city where a majority will vote for candidates that support anti-homeless measures. They wouldn’t support a candidate who was anti-LGBT. That’s because the homeless are still a group that it’s okay to bash.

Flashback to the 1960s and 1970s when conservative candidates ran on platforms of cleaning up “vice,” which meant keeping gay men off the streets and out of the parks where we — gasp! — cruised for sex. It was often a winning strategy because middle-class people saw gay men as negatively impacting their “quality of life,” a phrase that is often used these days in connection with the homeless.

The greatest shame in all this is that one of the politicians pushing the anti-homeless initiatives here in SF is a gay man running for State Senate who doesn’t get that, had he been around in the 60s or 70s, he would have been targeted in the same way he’s targeting the homeless.

I can only hope that, this time around, SF voters are too smart to fall for this cynical ploy.

150 COMMENTS

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  30. You can offer them a bus ticket, but you cannot force them to leave. And quite frankly, your comment does not refute mine. Many have nowhere to go back too.

  31. Not quite true. 29% made the choice to move here from somewhere else where they were homeless.

    We can give them a bus ticket, and a lottery ticket that allows them to apply for housing after all those homeless who were born, grew up, or lived here many years become housed.

  32. The people who can’t figure out how to house our current population are the same people who believe San Francisco can magically accomodate a population of 2.2 million.

  33. I lived in the Mission for about ten years. I never saw tents until about two or three years ago. People slept on sidewalks, and in doorways. The tents, quite frankly, are an improvement, but the fact remains, this should not be the option that people are forced to choose.

  34. People should not HAVE to live in tents on sidewalks, but until we build more shelters and supportive housing, they have no choice.

  35. The homeless are used as a political football by the so-called “moderates.” They are totally unwilling to give that up. Anything that might actually help end homelessness would force them to actually deal with real world issues.

  36. Revisionist history more like it. I’ve lived in the mission for 16 years and the assertion that it used to be “groovy, clean and safe” is just utter BS. There were tents and feces and needles back then too. That got better but the last 2-3 years has gotten worse. There was Garfield park that you didn’t dare walk by. There were gang shootings every week. There were so many drive by shootings at the market near Precita Park that I lost count. That location is now the cute Precita Park Cafe that is filled with parents pushing strollers. Cars were stolen on a daily basis. SUV’s were an easy target for vandals.

  37. As a long time resident of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in San Francisco who regularly runs the gauntlet of tents on 16tht Street, I started writing an OpEd that describes the correlation between the demise of the strong artists community that is being replaced by luxury housing and the return of crime and filthy streets. A historical perspective of the rise and fall of the Mission and SOMA arts scene explains what happened to the groovy, clean and safe neighborhood the artists built in the old industrial hood and how this dotdom boom differs from past boom cycles.
    Part one is here: https://zrants.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/pdr-zoning-encouraged-artists-to-clean-up-the-old-industrial-areas-of-the-eastern-neighborhoods/

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  39. I agree with a housing first policy. I agree with building more navigation centers, building more shelters and more supportive housing. I absolutely disagree that we should allow tents on our sidewalks.

    Supporting LGBT rights and supporting the right to build a tent and take private control of public space is in no way analogous.

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