San Francisco Seeks Humane Answer to Homeless Issue

HOMELESS bike messenger Tony Bentley hangs out in Civic Center park all day. Wearing torn jeans and restraining his unruly black hair with a headband, Mr. Bentley says that even when he does work, he earns only about $250 a week. He has tried to find permanent housing, but a dilapidated studio apartment in the city's poorest neighborhood costs $100 a week. ``How can I afford that?'' he asks.

Once he stood in a long line to get a room in a city-subsidized hotel for the homeless. ``But when I finally got the room,'' explains Mr. Bentley, ``I found roaches and ticks in the bed. It was so seedy, I'd rather sleep on the waterfront.''

Bentley is one of an estimated 6,000-to-10,000 homeless San Franciscans. For the past two months he and other homeless people living at the Civic Center have clashed with police, jammed meetings of the Board of Supervisors, and stormed the mayor's office demanding housing and city services.

Mayor Art Agnos, like other big-city mayors across the United States, is caught between homeless demands for justice and conservative calls to clear the homeless off city property. He appears to have defused the crisis for the moment by allowing the homeless to stay at Civic Center, but removing their tents, beds, couches, and other permanent shelters.

Homeless men and women began staying overnight in the Civic Center park in the early 1980s. Their presence, experts say, resulted from cuts in federal housing subsidies to the poor and in California welfare programs, as well as the economic recession of the early '80s.

Although it is technically illegal to sleep overnight in city parks, the presence of the homeless in Civic Center was tolerated until early June of this year. Bill Maher, a member of the Board of Supervisors, says the situation changed when people built tents and permanent structures.

Mr. Maher says he received numerous complaints from city employees who, on their way to work every morning, had to pass by the homeless. He called for police to roust any homeless person sleeping in the park after 10 p.m.

Terence Hallinan, the only member of the Board of Supervisors who has met with the homeless encamped at the Civic Center, supports Mayor Agnos's policies.

Rather than expel the homeless, Agnos issued an order forbidding beds, couches, tents, or other permanent structures in the park. That order caused a group of angry homeless to invade the mayor's office July 11. Food Not Bombs, a homeless advocacy group, began distributing free food in Civic Center in defiance of city policy. On July 21 police swept through the park to remove tents and couches, but they did not evict the homeless. There were no violent clashes.

In a Monitor interview, Mayor Agnos said his policy is a ``humane way to deal with a very legitimate urban problem.'' However, he says, the city must find a long-term solution. Agnos has set aside $1.5 million in the city budget and obtained five US Housing and Urban Development grants to build transition housing for the homeless. ``We need a homeless center where they can have a permanent address, employment training, and housing in the same facility,'' says the mayor.

Tony Bentley welcomes that idea. ``But the homeless have got to run it,'' he says, because it would never work with city bureaucrats in charge. ``We're people and we can be responsible.''

Agnos doesn't know when the homeless center funds will be available, or when the facility will be built. Until then, the homeless will continue to live in Civic Center and the potential for confrontation remains.

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