Cities Try to Sweep Homeless Out of Sight

Coalition on Homelessness, SF (
Tue, 7 Dec 1999 20:19:09 -0800

Isn't it funny how when the focus should be on Rudy's blatant efforts 
to divide the community of New York on a basis of wealth, the nytimes 
focuses on poverty issues in San Francisco? Kinda like how there's 
always more articles in the news about homeless people in Vietnam, or 
Brazil, or Russia, or anywhere except the town the newspaper you're 
reading is from?

This article, which should be the first of a series, was a lot of 
hard work by Evelyn and all the staff and volunteers at COH who spent 
many long hours educating her.  If she can ever fly it past her 
editors, she may be able to educate many.


chance martin
Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco

Cities Try to Sweep Homeless Out of Sight

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the police car pulled up, the twelve were sitting
in a tired heap with 15 shopping carts and two dogs along a landscaping
wall outside the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street.

Not an hour earlier, two officers had chased them all from a park across
the street, at the tourist-filled United Nations Plaza. Not 10 minutes
earlier, one of them, Caesar Cruz, a resident of the alleys for three
years, had said he felt like crumpled paper in the wind, tossed from
here to there all day long.

Now an officer was saying someone had complained about them. Cruz,
holding two $76 summonses for "camping in public" (sleeping in a
doorway), worried about getting another. So he nodded again and again
when the officer said he would like Cruz to "move along."

No one uttered a word in protest. Everyone scattered.

But it is not always so easy to make people who live on the streets
disappear. In San Francisco, homeless people haunt the city: cocooned in
doorways, pushing overloaded shopping carts, standing on corners
announcing their troubles on cardboard signs ("Veteran, homeless and

San Francisco is far from alone. At the richest time in the nation's
history, housing that the poor can afford is at an all-time low, fueling
an increase in homelessness, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
And with complaints about beggars and bag ladies and mumbling, stumbling
vagrants growing as well, cities are fighting as never before to move
homeless people out of public spaces.

In Sacramento, officials give homeless people one-way bus tickets out of
town. In Santa Ana, it is illegal to sit in the Civic Center with
belongings that occupy more than 3 cubic feet. In Atlanta, a person who
asks for money more than twice from a passer-by who ignores the request
can be arrested. In Seattle, those caught sleeping in parks can be
banned from them.

For many cities, the model is New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's
quality-of-life initiative swept midtown Manhattan of panhandlers and
squeegee men in the early 1990s. Thousands of homeless people were
ticketed, and many were arrested, for offenses like sleeping in parks or
obstructing sidewalks.

(While Giuliani recently announced that homeless people will have to
work for a shelter bed, New York is the only city that guarantees any
homeless person shelter on demand, and it has the nation's most
extensive services for the homeless.)

Laws aimed at people on the streets have become popular in the last 10
years, and even more so in the last five, as the booming economy has
brought real estate developers, tourists and well-to-do home buyers back
to central cities. The scramble for space has made once overlooked
neighborhoods -- the kind where single-room-occupancy hotels thrived and
the very poor lived unnoticed -- hot properties. The catch is that they
must be scrubbed clean.

Downtown revitalization or business improvement plans often include park
curfews and ordinances popularly known as quality-of-life laws that make
sleeping, lying down, and sometimes sitting and standing in public,
offenses punishable by imprisonment.

Of 49 cities surveyed last year by the National Law Center on
Homelessness and Poverty, 73 percent were enacting or enforcing such
laws, up from 26 percent in 1994.

City officials talk about "tough love" approaches to forcing homeless
people to seek help, and about the growing impatience for what some,
echoing President Ronald Reagan, call the "homeless by choice."

"There are those who fail to realize that we have to pay a price if we
want to improve the quality of life," said the Rev. Amos Brown, a San
Francisco supervisor. He has proposed a city ordinance that would ban
standing on a corner or street median for more than five minutes, to
discourage panhandling. Loiterers would face a $250 fine and up to six
months in jail.

"We need to decide, are we going to be a society where there's a sense
of order," Brown said, "or do we want a disorderly society where
anything goes?"


 From Society Ill to Personal Problem

Whether fueled by highly publicized attacks by mentally disturbed people
described as homeless, or exhausted by the seeming intractability of the
problem, the current policies and attitudes toward the homeless are a
stark change from barely a decade ago.

In 1986, 6 million people formed a 4,000-mile line coast to coast to
raise money to fight hunger and homelessness. These days, solving
homelessness has faded from the public consciousness. Poverty, despite
President Clinton's two forays this year to down-and-out communities,
barely rates the news.

"Homelessness has gone from being a societal problem to being a
messed-up individual's problem," said Paul Boden, a board member of the
National Coalition for the Homeless and a director of the San Francisco
Coalition on Homelessness. "There is an attitude that with unemployment
at record lows, with the stock market at record highs, if you're poor,
it's your own damn fault."

Officials in communities enforcing quality-of-life laws say they are
doing all they can to house and to provide medical and mental-health
services for the truly needy, despite increasing competition for state
and federal money.

But advocates for the poor say many communities are spending more energy
and resources on plans to police and prosecute the down and out as
quality-of-life offenders than on tackling the causes of homelessness.

"It's not rocket science to figure out that people become homeless
because of the lack of affordable housing and support services for those
who are mentally ill or addicted," said Mary Ann Gleason, director of
the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Yet it's true that in many
communities across the country, cities are responding in not very
helpful ways to the growing need for affordable housing and accessible
health care.

"We continue to discharge people from prisons and hospitals into
shelters. We continue to put people who need help with substance abuse
on long waiting lists. And now, putting people in jail for doing in
public what other people have the privilege to do in private seems to be
the way to go."


Using the Law and Persuasion

California's capital, Sacramento, began cracking down on street people
about four years ago, pushed by business people trying to improve the
city's image. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents
about 550 businesses, employs about 20 people that it calls city guides
to patrol 65 blocks. The patrols, concentrating on tourist areas and
shopping zones, call the police when they find someone sleeping on the
street or panhandling.

"To make this a destination and encourage continued revitalization, we
need to continue to make it clear that downtown is not going to be a
place where panhandling and other negative activity is tolerated," said
Michael Ault, the partnership's executive director.

Sacramento has become "tired of the constancy" of homelessness, said
Heather Fargo, a councilwoman, who said the city was spending $14
million on homeless programs this year, up from $1.6 million 10 years

In a move that many other communities have made, Sacramento, after weeks
of coaxing scores of people from an encampment along a river parkway,
began offering them bus tickets out of town. City officials said they
sent away only those who had a relative or friend who had agreed to take
them in.

Nearby communities have found even more creative ways to police their
streets. In Roseville, a suburb about 25 miles east of Sacramento, the
police go under cover to catch panhandlers in the act. Homeless people
say they are often escorted out of town.

Marysville, an old gold-rush town of 12,500 residents about 40 miles
north of Sacramento, has painted 10 parking meters red, removed the
timers and called them homeless meters. Signs on the machines say:
"Donation here will help the homeless. Please do not give cash to

The city has also banned shopping carts from city streets and rummaging
through trash, and "Dumpster diving," except with permission of the
property owner.

Mark Siemens, the Marysville city administrator and chief of police,
said the city began cracking down on panhandling five years ago, after
"a huge backlash from the business population in town."

About 40 to 50 transients and street people would haunt a
two-square-mile area, Siemens said. Many came by freight train, he said,
drawn by the city's rescue mission and other services for the homeless.

Now, he said: "When they realize, 'Gee whiz, it just doesn't do any good
to stand on a corner and beg for money,' they find someplace else to go.
If there's no good fishing in the lake, you find another lake."

In San Francisco, police sweeps and crackdowns on homeless people have
become so well known that in October the National Coalition for the
Homeless chose the city as the site to open a national campaign for
civil rights for the homeless. This year the police here issued more
than 20,000 citations for violations of ordinances like trespassing,
camping, carrying an open container and violating park curfews, compared
with 17,500 in 1998 and 15,700 in 1997.

Because the citations do not appear to be making a dent in the homeless
population, the city's Board of Supervisors recently approved $250,000
for the city attorney to set up a special unit dedicated to prosecuting
those offenses.

Many people seem to approve. In random interviews with three dozen
people in San Francisco, many had qualified sympathy for the homeless
but most were also harshly critical of people they felt were unwilling
to change their situation. Only a fourth of those interviewed named high
housing costs as a cause of homelessness; a third blamed laziness or

"I don't really sympathize," said Leia Sutton, a waitress. "I feel they
are already taken such good care of with financial aid and food stamps.
They get free food. And I think it's making a lot of them not get off
their butts and survive for themselves."

Aaron James, a parking control officer in San Francisco, blamed housing
costs. "Yuppies from Silicon Valley are coming in and sending the prices
soaring," he said. "Studios are going for $1,200 a month."

But Nabil Salem, 30, who owns the McCallister Market and Deli, in the
Tenderloin neighborhood where many homeless people live, sees a lack of
personal responsibility in the people he brushes from his doorway.

"It's a very big problem for retailers," Salem said. "Every morning I
come in to open up the store. And they're sleeping in the doorway. Or
they have left boxes, where they've slept. Or food. They urinate or
sometimes defecate. And it smells. I get so mad. It happens all the
time. Every morning. It takes me two hours to clean it up sometimes. Why
should I have to put up with that?"

In October the city announced a plan to confiscate shopping carts as
stolen property from the hundreds of people who use them to carry their
belongings. The plan was canceled when the public protested that the
idea was cruel.

Still, in recent interviews with dozens of homeless people, most
reported having their possessions thrown away by teams hired by
supermarkets to retrieve the shopping carts, or by the police, who seize
the carts as abandoned property, even as the homeless person stands by.

"They just took my stuff and dumped it in a Dumpster, and I had all my
papers in there," said Tyrone Saunders, 35, who has been homeless for
four years. "I have AIDS, so I had to go fishing through the garbage to
get my stuff back. I don't ask nobody for nothing. I clean floors at the
corner store for my money. And everyone still sees me as dirt."

In recent weeks the police have also started arresting volunteers for
handing out food to homeless people (without having a permit to do so)
at United Nations Plaza. (The catch: The city will not grant them a
permit.) "I have never seen anything so mean-spirited," said Sister
Bernie Galvin, director of Religious Witness With Homeless People, an
interfaith advocacy group, who was one of those arrested and held in
jail for 24 hours.

George Smith, the director of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness, and a
former homeless drug user, acknowledged that the police crackdowns had
done little to help matters. He said the city was in the process of
increasing teams of outreach workers to offer help to street people.

"We have people moving through the system successfully all the time," he
said. But, he said, "San Francisco can't be expected to solve a national


Rising Opposition to Growing Need

In many cities, officials insist that the people wandering the streets
night and day come from elsewhere. They say the homeless are drawn to a
place by its weather or welfare allowance or reputation for tolerance.

In fact, studies of homeless people have suggested that most of them
once lived in the communities where they are homeless. Dennis Culhane, a
professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania,
who has studied homelessness, said that based on analyses in New York
City and Philadelphia, homeless people were, predictably, the very poor.

They come from the poorest neighborhoods, where people pay the most for
their housing relative to income, they crowd together to afford housing
costs, and they have the highest unemployment and temporary employment
rates. Their neighborhoods have the worst levels of housing abandonment.
"We have found that evictions are the single biggest threat to
homelessness," Culhane said.

No one, it seems, wants homeless people in their back yard. In
communities where homeless people are regularly cited for begging or
sleeping or trespassing, officials are encountering mounting resistance
when they try to open shelters to house those they have swept off the

In Atlanta, where an estimated 22,000 people are homeless, two proposed
shelters are stalled by opposition. Earlier this year, a donor bought a
building on Peachtree Street, the city's main thoroughfare, for the
Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. The task force proposed
converting the building, which housed an arts group, to a shelter that
that would also provide counseling for abuse of drugs and alcohol and
help in getting jobs and long-term housing.

But the building is in the renovated downtown, where more than 9,000
homeless people were arrested in the 12 months before the 1996 Olympic
Games for violating newly enacted quality-of-life laws, and opposition
to the shelter was swift and loud.

The city requested that single men be housed in a separate building from
women and children in order for the project to proceed. But when the
task force then signed a contract to buy a former nightclub in an
industrial neighborhood, that, too, met protests, and city officials
earlier this month refused to support the shelter.

Although the closest real neighborhood is across a highway, the area is
in the process of revitalization, with landlords converting warehouses
into loft condominiums.

"If we can't open it here, then where?" said Anita Beaty, co-director of
the task force, as she looked around the pocked landscape surrounding
the empty building on a recent visit. Some 85 to 90 women and children
have been sleeping in the task-force office on recent nights, she said.

The other day, about two dozen men were lying a stone's throw from the
building where the men's shelter would be built. They live under the
highway, not on the ground but tucked under the top of supports that
hold an elevated section. In broad daylight, they were shrouded in
darkness. Only the glint of eyes and teeth were visible, and several of
the men covered their faces when they noticed people observing them.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company


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Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
468 Turk St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
vox: (415) 346.3740
Fax: (415) 775.5639