San Francisco's homeless strife has lessons for Phila. FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 22 Jun 1998 15:00:15 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.phillynews.com:80/inquirer/98/Jun/21/national/PAN21.htm
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - June 21, 1998

     SAN FRANCISCO'S HOMELESS STRIFE HAS LESSONS FOR PHILA.
     Panhandling laws have not worked there.
     Critics say such tactics ignore the problem.

     By Nita Lelyveld - Inquirer Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Rainbow flags flutter from the doorways on Castro Street,
a bustling thoroughfare of shops and cafes where men walk hand in hand and
the local theater is hosting the 22d annual Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
The heart of the Castro District, America's most famous gay neighborhood,
has long been known as an outpost of tolerance, where everyone is welcome
and just about anything goes.

But lately, even in compassionate Castro, the welcome mat is no longer out
for one group: panhandlers. Frustration is rising in famously liberal San
Francisco. Homeless people and panhandlers are everywhere, from the benches
of Union Square to the '60s-nostalgic storefronts of Haight-Ashbury.

Like Philadelphia, San Francisco has been grappling for decades with the
issue of homelessness. Five years ago this city enacted a law similar to
the Philadelphia ordinance that was passed Thursday in City Council to ban
panhandling and sitting or lying on sidewalks.

It didn't work.

Finally this spring, fed up with people sitting in their doorways and
asking their customers for change, the Castro District's merchants
association posted signs in most shop windows. The signs show quarters with
diagonal red slashes through their centers, and read:

"Create Change. Don't Hand It Out. INSTEAD, donate money or volunteer time
to agencies working to reduce the number of people living on our streets."

The anti-panhandling stance hasn't come easily to a neighborhood known for
its generosity, which poured forth endlessly as AIDS ripped through the
Castro's ranks.

"A lot of the panhandlers aren't homeless in the first place. And they come
here because we're known for our compassion," said Jeff Ward, manager of a
gay-oriented Castro Street gift shop called Does Your Father Know? and the
leader of the sign campaign.

"Tolerance is a great thing. That's why I came here. But it's not an
invitation to lie in the streets."

Over the years, the city of San Francisco has confronted complaints about
street people in a number of different ways, amid a program called Matrix,
much like the ordinance just passed by the Philadelphia City Council, in
which police handed out fines for offenses like sitting and lying on the
sidewalks, public drunkenness, and aggressive panhandling.

Over the years, Matrix and other confrontational approaches have been
caught in a push-pull struggle between the city's welcoming ways and its
mounting frustration.

Homeless advocates, who estimate the homeless population at somewhere
between 11,000 and 14,000, say little progress has been made. They point
fingers at the city's outspoken mayor, Willie Brown, who promised to make
fighting homelessness a top priority but last year told a reporter, "The
problem may not be solvable."

City officials, on the other hand, say they are doing their best, and
insist the homeless population is much smaller: between 4,000 and 6,000 (a
number still much larger than that of Philadelphia, estimates of which
range anywhere from 500 to 3,000 -- in a city more than twice as populous
as San Francisco).

Brown officially ended the Matrix program in 1996, shortly after taking
office, in response to widespread discomfort with the crackdown.

But last November, after many citizens complained that they no longer felt
safe in Golden  Gate Park because of the homeless encampments scattered
throughout its acreage, Brown ordered police to sweep the area, destroying
the encampments, confiscating belongings, and pushing out inhabitants.

Neighborhoods like the Castro and Haight-Ashbury quickly saw the numbers of
homeless people rise on their streets after the sweep. And in January, when
a local newspaper conducted a poll to mark the halfway point of Brown's
term, his popularity ratings fell below 50 percent for the first time.
Nearly half of those polled said Brown hadn't done enough to combat
homelessness.

Homeless advocates describe much of the city's policy as a shell game --
forcing people from one place only to have them show up in another. The
homeless still camp in Golden Gate Park, they say, and police still harass
them constantly for dozens of alleged offenses. Advocates say the real
solutions lie not in punitive measures but in addressing the root causes of
homelessness -- from drug addiction to the massive shortage of affordable
housing. The city recently increased the number of shelter beds, from about
1,400 to 2,200. But shelters only are temporary solutions, too, advocates
say.

"People want a quick fix to homelessness, and of course there isn't one. We
keep looking for these quick fixes, like, 'Well, gosh, if we can't house
them, let's prohibit them,' " said Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of
the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "It doesn't
stabilize people long-term." Housing is notoriously tight and expensive in
the Bay Area, where the median San Francisco home resale price is estimated
to be as high as $323,500. As in many cities, most of the old downtown
welfare hotels have been demolished or gentrified.

"Finding housing is notoriously time-consuming and expensive. But we're
putting a heavy emphasis on development of affordable housing," said Terry
Hill, the mayor's coordinator on the homeless issue. "This year's budget
includes $1.5 million for direct access to housing -- where the city would
master lease rooms in affordable hotels, SROs, and areas like the
Tenderloin [ neighborhood ] . We're hoping to have 500 to 600 units."

Hill also points to a number of other initiatives aimed at attacking
homelessness at its roots, from a recently developed treatment-on-demand
program in which the city attempts to find addiction and substance abuse
treatment for anyone who asks, to a similar program in the works for mental
health treatment.

This being San Francisco, there are also some quirkier plans, including
what would be the nation's first park for people who live in their cars.

Hundreds of San Franciscans do just that, prompting frequent complaints
from residents and business owners on the streets where they park. Car
dwellers are complaining, too -- about the city's constant towing of their
vehicles. So now the city is working with an organization of car dwellers
to find a property where as many as 50 cars could park. The site would have
showers and toilets and meeting rooms, and no one would be harassed. The
city would also try to find RVs for people to live in instead of their cars.

"We don't consider this permanent. The objective is to buy people some time
so that they can find more permanent housing," Hill said.

Homeless advocates grudgingly support the idea, because it is supported by
the homeless themselves.

San Franciscans constantly complain, too, about homeless people who block
the sidewalks with shopping carts full of belongings. The city frequently
rounds up the carts, seizing the contents and holding them until they are
claimed. Now, Hill said, a plan is in the works to hand out large, "really
nice" duffle bags to the homeless when they come to get their things.

Another proposal would set up rental storage lockers, with homeless people
running the facilities.

Al Camarillo, a Stanford University professor who teaches a course on
homelessness and poverty, says the city is going in all directions without
a coherent policy. But he said time has shown that tough tactics like the
ones soon to be enforced in Philadelphia don't work.

As for the homeless people, many say they are bewildered and saddened by
all the efforts to get them out of sight. On a recent afternoon in the
Castro, Brian Crawford sat on the curb a few doors down from Does Your
Father Know?, quietly asking passersby for spare change. The 43-year-old,
who looked closer to 60, had a hospital bracelet around his wrist and moved
his head wildly as he spoke.

"I've been out here for about 17 months. The government took me off SSI.
I'm emotionally and physically disabled," he said haltingly. "But it seems
like nobody cares anymore. It makes you feel really sad....It's not easy
out here, you know," he said softly. "It's kind of hard. It's not something
you want to be doing.

END FORWARD

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