The October 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Federal Housing Cuts to Blame for Homelessness

Judge Halts OHA Evictions

The Crime of Pushing a Cart

Giving Love to a Homeless Dog

Clergy Denounce Police Sweeps of Homeless

St. Mary's on the Move for Justice

Oaxaca's Radical Teachers

Berkeley Is Hard on the Homeless

Giant Puppets Stand Tall for Justice

Poor Leonard: On History

October Poetry of the Streets


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March 2005

February 2005


Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

San Francisco Punishes People for the Crime of Being Poor

These citations drill people into the ground they are ticketed for sleeping upon. Jobs, housing, drug treatment and benefits are all threatened by this terrible policy.

by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

San Francisco has spent more than $5.7 million since January 2004 issuing citations to thousands of homeless people.

These are the recipients of the 31,230 citations issued by the San Francisco police. These homeless people were cited, arrested, dragged through the courts and jailed for engaging in actions that you and I regard without a second thought as a routine part of our daily life.

When you and I awaken on any morning, we get up out of a warm bed. We feel for our slippers, walk a few steps to the bathroom, use its facilities and then take a nice, warm shower. We dress in clean clothes for the day and enjoy a cup of freshly brewed coffee or tea. Following a breakfast of our choosing, we leave our home for work that gives us a sense of achievement and pays at least a living wage.

At the end of that workday, we return to our safe, comfortable home for a nice meal. We may enjoy a glass of wine or a cold beer to help us unwind after a hard day.

In the morning, our homeless brothers and sisters awaken on cold, hard cement or cold, damp, hard ground. They may or may not have been able to sleep through the night. Police rouse people sleeping on the sidewalks as early as four in the morning and force them to move on. Officers knock on the doors of parked vehicles and force people sleeping in them to get out and receive a citation. Very often the car or van -- the only "home" they have -- is confiscated. The first-time penalty for this "crime" of sleeping in their vehicle is up to six months in jail.

Our homeless neighbors ease up from the ground to face another hard day. Once on their feet, they too look for a place to relieve themselves. There are no accommodations. Trying to maintain their dignity, they seek some privacy. If caught relieving themselves, they can be cited for having committed a "criminal" offense.

Of course, there is no pleasant glass of wine for homeless people. Possession of any opened alcoholic beverage container may result in an "Open Container" citation.

When we speak of these homeless people being cited, arrested, dragged through the courts and jailed, we are not engaging in mere rhetoric.

1. A staggering 31,230 citations actually were issued in San Francisco.
2. Roughly 30 percent of all citations end up in court.
3. In 2004-2005, 200 homeless San Franciscans were jailed for violating a "quality of life" ordinance. .
4. Their cumulative time in our already overcrowded jail was 894 days - that's two-and-one-half years!

The consequences of receiving a citation can be severe for homeless persons. Their already precarious living situation becomes even more chaotic and stressful.

Perhaps the most disturbing and destructive is the fact that the "quality of life" system in effect condemns many of them to continued homelessness because the citations, warrants and convictions haunt them literally for years. If the homeless person is on parole, receiving just a single "quality of life" citation can mean that person is sent back to prison.

Getting a job is already difficult for a homeless person. "Quality of life" citations nonsensically manufacture a criminal record for someone simply trying to survive. This means that no matter how hard some of them work to better themselves, securing steady employment becomes nearly impossible for some.

"Quality of life" citations, warrants and convictions can make it more difficult for them to secure housing since background checks are now standard procedure for many leasing companies.

Receiving citations, warrants, convictions and jail time has translated into individuals being denied entry into City-funded drug and alcohol treatment programs. These citations, warrants, convictions and jail time mean that some individuals have had their Social Security and other social benefits threatened. Once cancelled, these benefits are nearly impossible to restore.

Housing, jobs, drug treatment and federal and state benefits are all threatened by this terrible policy. The consequences are very real. "Quality of life" citations drill individuals into the ground they are ticketed for sleeping upon.

The stark contradictions within San Francisco's Policy on Homelessness are best expressed in the words of homeless people themselves:

"The City has started doing some really good things now but the cops just keeping doing bad things to us. It's like they help you up then they slap you right back down."

"I went to Project Homeless Connect and they really helped me. Two days later, they arrested me for not paying my tickets."

San Francisco's policy on homelessness is at war with itself -- and we are all the victims.

Stop the Cruel Enforcement of 'Quality of Life' Ordinances Against Homeless People.

Please sign the petition of Religious Witness with Homeless People.
Phone: Religious Witness with Homeless People at (415) 929-0781
E-mail: relwithome@yahoo.com
Fax: (415) 929-0783


San Francisco Clergy Speak Out Against Cruel Police Repression

by Casey Mills


Priests, rabbis and ministers speak out for the human rights of homeless people at a rally held in San Francisco by Religious Witness with Homeless People.

As the colder weather of autumn approaches, a coalition of San Francisco's religious leaders joined together at City Hall recently to reveal the results of months of study on the city's homeless policy. The results, they said, depicted the Newsom administration as simultaneously working to house as many homeless people as possible, while criminalizing those it lacks the resources to serve.

Clergy members decried the 31,230 "quality of life" citations delivered in the past two-and-one-half years for behaviors such as sleeping outdoors or possessing an open container as "spiritually bankrupt;" and they also pointed out it cost taxpayers $5.7 million, and that 80 percent of the citations were dismissed.

In addition, a civil rights lawyer was on hand to show that these citations often prevent homeless people from getting the housing they so desperately need, revealing the contradictions in a city policy that works simultaneously to create housing opportunities, then takes these opportunities away. "It's a policy in this city at war with itself," said Reverend Schuyler Rhodes.

Religious Witness with Homeless People, a broad interfaith coalition of the city's religious leaders, initiated the study months ago and released it to the public on August 31, 2006. Headed up by Sister Bernie Galvin, the study sought to unearth the true costs of citing homeless people for "quality of life" infractions.

Religious leaders previously lambasted these citations, which punish various nonviolent behaviors that often come as a result of being homeless, for being a cruel way to treat San Francisco's less fortunate. The results of the new study, however, added important new critiques of the practice -- the fact that it costs taxpayers millions every year, and that it runs directly counter to the Newsom administration's effort to house all homeless people.

Since January of 2004, San Francisco has spent more than $5.7 million on issuing "quality of life citations." According to Elisa Dell-Piana of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the high cost can be traced to a variety of causes, including paying the police officers to give the citations, funding the expenses of forcing offenders to appear for multiple court dates, and paying officers yet again to testify at these court dates.

Dell-Piana also explained that more than 80 percent of these citations are thrown out, proving that the expensive process for doling them out rarely brings any concrete result. When the citations aren't thrown out, however, they can make it far more difficult for the homeless to obtain housing, as screening processes often check applicants' criminal records.

Because the practice conflicts directly with San Francisco's attempts to house its homeless population, Rev. Schuyler Rhodes likened it to the disaster that occurred during the construction of the Verrazano Bridge. Workers built the bridge out from opposite sides of the New York Bay, only to discover near the completion of construction that the two sides didn't connect. Such, said Rhodes, is the city's homeless policy, with two arms of city government working against each other.

"We religious leaders are deeply disturbed by the mean-spiritedness of this punitive part of our current policy on homelessness," said Galvin. "We come today, compelled to speak out once again about this injustice and the subsequent suffering and pain our homeless sisters and brother endure."

Speak out they did, with representatives of the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist communities all weighing in on the recent study. While they represented a diverse group, their message remained clear -- the city must change its citation policy if it wants to consider itself both a moral city and a pragmatic one.

Rabbi Alan Lew said, "The truly shocking thing about the aggressive enforcement of the 'quality of life citations' is that it is not only spiritually and morally futile. It is that it has been futile on a practical level, too."

Unfortunately, the Newsom administration doesn't appear ready to act anytime soon. Despite numerous requests made by Religious Witness to meet directly with Mayor Gavin Newsom, he has steadfastly refused, making him the first mayor since the organization was founded to do so.

Casey Mills is a community organizer and the managing editor of Beyondchron.org


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