[Hpn] USA Today -- Homeless hurt on several fronts

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Fri, 27 Dec 2002 10:40:53 -0800


USA Today     
Posted 12/26/2002 8:49 PM

Homeless hurt on several fronts

By John Ritter, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO  A sour economy makes it harder for poor Americans to find
jobs, yet rents and home prices that usually sag in a recession are rising
in many places, throwing more people onto the streets.

On top of that double whammy comes a crackdown on street people. Many cities
are passing tough laws against panhandling, loitering and sleeping in public

Homeless advocates say assistance has not increased to meet the crisis.

Even in this city known for generosity to the downtrodden, tough love is the
new mantra. Voters last month approved slashing cash grants to the homeless
from $395 a month to $59 while beefing up mental health, substance abuse and
housing programs.

Dubbed "Care Not Cash," the measure is supposed to treat the causes of
homelessness not its street symptoms. Supporters say it will erase San
Francisco's status as the free lunch capital by eliminating what lures
homeless people from across the country.

"No one can find even the cheapest rundown motel in San Francisco for $395,"
says Gavin Newsom, an elected supervisor who sponsored the measure. "No city
in America spends more per capita on the homeless, but it's still not enough
to provide a roof over your head."

Attitudes toward the nation's estimated 3 million homeless have hardened,
advocates say. Downtown merchants think street people hurt business.
Tourists recoil at panhandling. The homeless are blamed for petty crime and
create resentment by sleeping in public parks and under freeway overpasses
and bridges. In a sample of 49 cities, the National Law Center on
Homelessness and Poverty found a 22% increase in the past three years in
prohibitions on loitering and a 14% increase in laws against sleeping in

Sidewalk bans proliferating

In Orlando, a tourist destination like San Francisco, homeless people as of
September risk $500 fines and 60 days in jail for sitting or lying on
downtown sidewalks. The city also requires panhandlers to get licenses and
limits begging to special zones. Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle are among a
number of cities with new sidewalk bans this year similar to Orlando's.

Santa Monica, Calif., this fall barred the homeless from camping in downtown
doorways and limited the free meals they get from charity groups. Palmdale,
Calif., last month approved misdemeanor citations for homeless people who
camp illegally. New Orleans removed all the benches from historic Jackson
Square to keep the homeless from sleeping there.

New York homeless advocates have sued police over a sharp spike in arrests
of homeless people for infractions that they say would not normally justify
charges. In Los Angeles last month, police swept through downtown's skid row
and arrested 130 people just days after business groups complained about the
homeless. Police said they were searching for parole violators.

Corpus Christi, Texas, police gave homeless residents of a tent city until
the end of January to clear out or be removed. Dallas this year began
enforcing health code rules on charities' street feeding of the homeless.
Last spring, Las Vegas police forced 175 homeless people out of makeshift
homes as part of its mayor's pledge to clean up a garbage-strewn downtown

Downtown Baltimore businesses persuaded the city last summer to crack down
on minor crimes that homeless advocates say were aimed at street people.
Santa Cruz, Calif.; Lakeland, Fla., and Asheville, N.C., are among a growing
list of cities to severely restrict panhandling.

El Cajon, Calif., is fighting in court to break up a homeless camp outside
an Episcopal church. The church claims a First Amendment right to shelter
the indigent. Sacramento twice tried a man for illegal camping  at a cost
to taxpayers of up to $10,000 a day  before winning a conviction. The man
was sentenced to 30 days on a work detail.

"There's definitely a growing trend toward harsher treatment of the
homeless," says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National
Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "But what's significant is we
found that none of the cities doing crackdowns had enough shelter space."

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual 25-city homeless survey
found requests for emergency shelter up an average 19% in 18 cities
reporting increases, the steepest rise in a decade. Most of the cities
reported that the length of time people were homeless had increased.

As homeless numbers swell so do fears that more will become crime victims.
Through October, 16 homeless people had died in violent crimes this year
compared with 18 in all of last year, the national coalition says.

"The term 'compassion fatigue' is used," Whitehead says. "People have not
seen a significant reduction in the number of homeless people. They see
dollars being spent for emergency needs but not for systemic solutions."

Housing is the gravest need, but the federal government's housing assistance
budget has declined 51% since 1976 while tax breaks for homeowners have
risen 312%, the National Low Income Housing Coalition says. Housing
advocates say there's a shortage of at least 5 million affordable rental
units nationwide.

Suit filed to stop Care Not Cash

In San Francisco, where the homeless issue has festered for years and cost
two mayors their jobs, no one's betting the latest fix will end the
political turmoil. Homeless advocates have sued to stop Care Not Cash from
taking effect in July.

They doubt that the city will live up to the spirit of the measure and
provide sufficient housing. The city, like many others operating in the red,
faces a $200 million budget deficit.

"The only thing the city could possibly do with the money recouped by
deducting it from the poor is massive shelter programs," says Paul Boden,
director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. "But we think 20
years of opening up more and more shelters is a failed approach."

Supervisor Newsom says Care Not Cash is worded so that funds can't legally
be cut. He says the city is ready to take over leases of 1,000 single room
occupancy units and make them available to the homeless.

San Francisco's homeless population is estimated at 10,000 to 12,000, but
only 2,800 single adults are eligible for monthly cash. Cutting those
benefits will free about $12 million a year to implement Care Not Cash.

Nearly everyone expects homeless numbers to fall. When nearby Alameda County
cut benefits from $336 to $18 a few years ago, its homeless population
shrank from 2,000 to fewer than 200. Many simply moved across the bay to San
Francisco, officials say.

Gavin believes the city, by doling out cash, is indirectly contributing to
drug addiction, overdose deaths and crimes against the homeless. "Any police
officer will tell you there's an increase in crime ... when people are
getting their checks," he says.

Voters here seem weary of years of haggling over the homeless. A competing
ballot measure last month to water down Care Not Cash failed. The business
and tourist sectors have complained for years about aggressive panhandling,
public urination and squalid conditions in homeless encampments.

San Francisco police routinely break up them up, and homeless advocates say
arrests for blocking sidewalks and sleeping in parks are up. The national
coalition rated San Francisco, along with Atlanta and New York, as the USA's
meanest cities if you're homeless.

Leslie Edquist, a laborer from Helena, Mont., who has lived on San
Francisco's streets for three years, says police rousted him from his tent
recently, packed him off to jail and threw away his belongings. Since his
release he has scavenged a sleeping bag and a few other belongings from
trash cans in affluent neighborhoods. He lives in a crude shelter with a
tarp over it in a vacant lot near train tracks on the city's south side. He
stays mobile with two grocery carts and a bicycle.

Edquist won't apply for the city's cash benefits because he says he's
capable of working. He survives on a few dollars from repairing old bikes.
He says he's been clean and sober for 11 years.

"This used to be the city of love," Edquist, 39, says. "Now it's so strict,
it's got a big noose around it and the rope is really tight, and they're
jerking the heck out of the rope right now."

 Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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