San Francisco's Homeless Plan Is Under Fire
Program's backers cite 4,000 arrests for `quality-of-life nuisance offenses' and a drop in the crime rate, but critics say chronic homeless and minorities are being harassed
SAN FRANCISCO — WITH the season of giving fast approaching, a heated battle between this city's haves and have-nots is being fought from streets to stores to City Hall.
Mayor Frank Jordan, swept into office last year with promises of cleaning up the city, is trying to answer public calls for clearing streets and sidewalks of aggressive panhandlers and vagrants. But his means of achieving that - a four-month-old ``Matrix'' homeless program - is being criticized for going too far and harassing the chronic homeless as well as a disproportionate number of minorities.
``I, as mayor of San Francisco, apologize to no one for the hard work we have put into the Matrix program,'' Mr. Jordan said at a press conference Monday. He invited citizens to a Board of Supervisors meeting called to pass a resolution against the program.
Citing 4,000 arrests for ``quality-of-life nuisance offenses'' -
including public intoxication, public urination, panhandling, trespassing, and encamping in public parks - Jordan claims a 30 percent drop in the crime rate since his program began in August.
But his main opponent on the Board of Supervisors, President Angela Alioto, says enforcing the citations has cost $1 million over three months, money that could be better spent attacking the problem of homelessness itself, rather than homeless people.
``My point is, let's fight serious crimes ... not quality-of-life crimes when we're in the middle of winter, and we are not offering any alternatives,'' Ms. Alioto says.
Recent polls say the public is split, with about 48 percent supporting the program and about 44 percent opposing it.
Scott Hill, who is living at a city homeless shelter, says the program is universally disliked by San Francisco's estimated 11,000 to 16,000 homeless.
``People who are doing no harm to anyone are being repeatedly harassed,'' says the unemployed 23-year-old, who has been homeless since he was 16. Mr. Hill recently was given a $65 ticket for sleeping in a park but says he cannot and will not pay. ``How you going to pay something like this when you don't even have money to eat?'' Homelessness incentive
Michael Johnson, who has been sleeping under a freeway ramp since he lost his job in February, says being out of work with no place to stay is incentive enough for homeless people to seek to change their situations.
``People think you are going to hurt them when they see someone who hasn't washed in a week come out of the shadows,'' he says. ``But that doesn't mean we're no good or that we're not trying.''
Officer David Ambrose, chief spokesman for the Police Department, says the program has had high public acceptance, based on phone calls made to precinct offices.
Beginning in August, police reported an increase in the number of complaints from residents, tourists, and merchants in two areas of the city. People living and working in the Civic Center area, near City Hall and many cultural buildings, as well as Union Square, a popular shopping district, said they were frightened and intimidated by the sheer numbers of street people.
Several tourists said they would not return to these areas because they had been subjected to serious crime and nuisance offenses.
``It's creepy,'' said a woman identifying herself only as a tourist from Iowa. ``You walk three blocks and have to say, `No,' to a dozen people asking for money. Then you turn the corner, and someone steps out of a doorway and gets in your face until you shout, `No!' ''
Such complaints prompted the police to begin enforcing existing law and arresting street people for misdemeanor offenses including ``willful and malicious obstruction of a street or sidewalk'' and ``drinking alcoholic beverages in public.'' Agencies make contacts
Eleanor Jacobs, director of the Mayor's Office of Homelessness, says a second component of the program is being overlooked in the current debate. Five to six days a week, officials from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Social Services are accompanying police to designated areas. So far, 600 to 800 contacts have been made with citizens eligible for housing, programs, and other services.
Nearly half of these people have prior criminal records, which are now being adjudicated, she says. And more than 60 percent have been found misusing $345 monthly general-assistance stipends intended for housing needs.
``These people are getting double treatment from the city,'' she says. ``They spend their [general assistance] allotments on drugs, and then eat and sleep at city-supported missions. [The Matrix program] has helped put a stop to that.''
Wendy Iwata, director of public information for the Department of Public Health, says 322 contacts have been made with citizens needing health attention. Thirty-six were classified as mental-health risks, as a nuisance to themselves or others.
``We feel the program has done very well in identifying people of serious risk who would otherwise have never found their way into the system,'' Ms. Iwata says.
But the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the Matrix program has the effect of criminalizing homelessness and poverty.
Ten days ago, the ACLU filed suit against the mayor's office charging that the Matrix program violates the constitutional rights of homeless people.
``The purpose of the Matrix program is not to enforce misdemeanor statutes,'' says Alan Schlosser, managing attorney for the ACLU. ``Rather, it is designed and intended to harass, intimidate, and detain homeless San Franciscans in an attempt to drive them from the city.''
The suit is still pending while the Alioto-sponsored resolution in the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for a vote Tuesday.
Among its statements:
* During 1992, 81,366 individuals were turned away from shelter facilities located throughout San Francisco. The United States Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness issued a joint policy statement in July concluding, in part, that a lack of shelters and hotel rooms has forced people to sleep in parks and doorways.
* A ``disproportionate share'' of those being cited are ethnic minorities, an overwhelming number of them black.
* Costs per arrest are estimated to be between $226 and $584; collection of fines is virtually impossible because citations are issued primarily to homeless people. The city has already paid some $572,400 in court-ordered fines because of jail overcrowding in 1993. More arrests in the Matrix program would only exacerbate such overcrowding.
* Reports of major crimes, including robberies and murders, are higher now than last year.
* Housing has been found for less than 5 percent of those contacted under the Matrix program.