Trials and Tribulations of Homeless Folks in San Francisco Courts

After spending 30 days in jail, a 52-year-old homeless man was sentenced to three years probation for illegal lodging, or sleeping outdoors. “A tired homeless man faced up to three years in prison for dozing off on a milk crate,” said Elisa Della-Piana. “Prison! For sleeping while sitting up…”

by T.J. Johnston

 

San Francisco may soon be trying more cases against its indigent residents for sitting or sleeping on sidewalks and other so-called “quality of life” offenses, said a public defender who pleaded out a client for sitting on a milk crate on a Tenderloin sidewalk.

Gary Williams, a 52-year-old homeless resident, accepted a three-year probation sentence and a stay-away order from two blocks in the Tenderloin district for illegal lodging, or sleeping outside. He already served 30 days in the county jail before the plea bargain on February 4.

Andrea Lindsay, his lawyer from the Public Defender’s office, said Williams could have fought the charges and won, but the judge reminded him that he faced three years of jail time for sleeping and additional charges of public nuisance, obstructing the sidewalk and violating an existing probation. Williams would also have been barred from the entire neighborhood, host to a myriad of homeless service organizations.

“He was scared, unfortunately and understandably, so he agreed to the probation,” Lindsay said.

Charges like those brought against Williams are increasingly common citywide, according to data from the San Francisco Human Services Agency, the department that oversees homeless services. The number of such citations of homeless people jumped sharply in the last two years: Illegal lodging charges increased from 85 to 219; maintaining a public nuisance, from 134 to 240; and obstructing a sidewalk, from 317 to 677.

Elizabeth Hilton, an attorney in the Public Defender’s misdemeanor unit, is already predicting more cases in the courts.

“Although we have not yet experienced an increase in quality-of-life offenses in misdemeanor court, this increase in citations may be a sign we will,” she said.

Overall figures from the SFHSA also show that police issued more citations to indigents in the last year after a three-year decline. Since 2006, local law enforcement has written 45,855 tickets for violations of more than 30 state and local codes. Street people have been ticketed almost double the previous year’s amount in 2012, when the number of citations rose to 5,179 from 2,821 in 2011.

District Attorney George Gascón announced recently that his office will crack down specifically on homeless people who fail to answer to previous citations. Gascón told the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce at a February 19 forum that his office is making examples of 69 people — who were labeled as “chronic inebriates” — with multiple citations after a state appeals court ruled that attempts to charge them with contempt were unconstitutional.

Those on probation will automatically get tried in criminal court, said Katherine Weinstein Miller, Gascón’s policy director. Because neighborhood courts and other diversion programs are only available for low-level, nonviolent offenders without probation, defendants who don’t fall into this group have no other option.

“Even if the crime is neighborhood-court eligible, the criminal is not,” Miller said. Spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman added that the office evaluates each incident “considering the totality of the circumstances” on a case-by-case basis.

lumped in exhaustion, a homeless man falls asleep while sitting up. This is now considered a crime in San Francisco. Photo by Robert Terrell

 

But advocates for the homeless community said this represents a push to criminalize homelessness. Elisa Della-Piana, director of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic in Berkeley, said Williams’ case sounded heavy-handed.

“A tired homeless man faced up to three years in prison for dozing off on a milk crate,” she said. “Prison. For sleeping while sitting up — an act that anyone who has ever been on a plane ride can attest is torture in and of itself.”

She said increased penalties against homeless people compound the effects of deep cuts in affordable housing and other poverty-abatement programs starting in the 1980s.

“Perhaps people are becoming used to the idea that it could be a crime just to be in a public place and look homeless,” she said. “I think it tears at the fabric of our communities to embrace selective enforcement in this way.”

Strict enforcement of quality-of-life violations goes against the recommendations of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness made in a report last year, asking for a lighter legal touch and diversion to affordable housing and supportive programs.

“I think all of us in San Francisco agree there’s a homelessness problem,” Lindsay said. “But the criminal courts are not the place to address it.”

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Laura’s Law and the Danger of Forced Detention

“Art in Jail” by Jos Sances. Serigraph, Edition 120, 8 color, 22” x 30”“Art in Jail” by Jos Sances. Serigraph, Edition 120, 8 color, 22” x 30”

How much sweeter “Laura’s Law” sounds than Forced Detention or Treatment! Yet it all sounds an awful lot like the usual government arguments used to justify surveillance, control, invasion of privacy. Who is to say this new law won’t be used to punish and isolate the indigent and the ill?

How a Community Was Scattered to the Wind

Bulldozer.jpg Albany officials sent in bulldozers and haulers to demolish the homes and destroy the belongings of scores of homeless people at the Albany Bulb. Lydia Gans photo

At 4:30 a.m., the police came, 30 of them. Armed with assault rifles, they broke down our front gate, tore down the door to our living space and arrested us for lodging. Our home was destroyed, our puppy was taken to the pound and our possessions were scattered to the wind.

Oakland Gives Green Light to Massive Gentrification

Gentrify.jpg The proposed mixed-use infill development in Opportunity Area 2, along Oakland’s historic 7th Street commercial corridor. Poor people are conspicuously absent in this picture.

The West Oakland Specific Plan will target Opportunity Sites for redevelopment and maximum exploitation by wealthy developers. Low-income people need not apply, and have been abandoned to fend for themselves once this gentrification scheme gains traction. Prologis Inc. and California Capital Investment Group are spearheading this gentrification scheme.

Exposing the Untold History of Psychiatric Atrocities

Photo by R. Valentine Atkinson, reprinted from The History of Shock Treatment, by Leonard Roy Frank

Over its history, Street Spirit has published a series of in-depth reports on many different kinds of psychiatric abuses that have been carried out in the name of healing, yet often end up damaging and disabling people for life. In light of renewed calls for forced psychiatric detention under the guise of “helping the mentally ill,” we are collecting and re-publishing these stories in a new section “Psychiatric Abuses and Human Rights”. 

Laura’s Law Passed by S.F. Board of Supervisors

Shadows on the wall. A dance of liberation from dehumanization in locked psychiatric wards. Art by Tanya Temkin

“I really feel that if we move forward without full and adequate funding of our mental health system, this may be leading to a false hope of safety in our neighborhoods,” said Eric Mar. “And I worry that there’s a danger of further stigmatizing people with mental illness.”

The Artistic Vision of Charles Curtis Blackwell

His eyesight was severely damaged in an accident when he was young, yet Blackwell’s love for jazz and the blues shines through in his colorful paintings of musicians. To overcome the obstacle of his near-blindness, he stands extremely close to the canvas, his eyes only inches away from his brush strokes.