Cities Get Tougher on Homeless, As Number of Street Dwellers Rises
Retailers, other citizens want to stop the begging, clear the doorways
SAN FRANCISCO — WHEN Bobby Joyce was temporarily removed from the city's general-assistance rolls, he lost his room in a local boarding house.
``I couldn't get into a homeless shelter,'' he says, ``so I tried to sleep in the park.'' Roused from sleep by police, he was arrested.
San Francisco, like dozens of other American cities, is taking a tougher stance on those who live on the streets and in its parks. Behind the drive are growing numbers of complaints from retailers and citizens who want to stop aggressive begging and remove the homeless from doorways.
The move mirrors a changing approach being taken on the homeless in many cities across the country. In some cases, local officials are tying aid to the homeless to requirements that they work. Elsewhere, ordinances against loitering and panhandling on public property are being enacted or suddenly enforced. Homeless people like Mr. Joyce are being fined, jailed, or removed from downtown areas.
``There is an increasing crackdown on the homeless in many cities,'' says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which this week will release a national study, ``No Homeless Persons Allowed.''
Some cities are coupling tougher enforcement policies with new programs to aid the homeless. Here in San Francisco, for instance, the mayor's office is talking of establishing permanent housing and other programs to aid the needy - though critics consider it empty talk.
Dade County, Fla., which includes Miami, approved a meals tax in 1993 to raise funds for long-term solutions to homelessness.
But many cities continue to tighten restrictions on those living on their streets.
* In order to get a cot in a New York City shelter, officials may soon require the homeless to sign contracts to get jobs or have drug treatment. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) wants to limit stays in shelters to 90 days.
* In Seattle, new ordinances have been passed targeting aggressive panhandling, which, city officials say, have been successful in cutting down on begging in the downtown area and near the University of Washington.
* In Washington, D.C., police are enforcing a law enacted last year that prohibits begging within 10 feet of an automatic teller machine and washing cars on the street for money.
* In the recent election here, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan (D) placed two propositions on the ballot, one criminalizing lying and sitting on sidewalks and the other requiring homeless people on city welfare to use their payment to get a room. The welfare measure passed. The sidewalk initiative didn't.
Joyce was initially fined $76 under Mayor Jordan's ``Matrix program'' started in 1993. The program is designed to end ``San Francisco's image as a magnet for the homeless,'' the mayor said at the time, and includes police sweeps at night to rid the streets of vagrants and homeless people.
``The judge dismissed the case against me for lack of evidence,'' Joyce says. In the past year, San Francisco police issued more than 14,000 citations to homeless people.
City officials say the idea behind the sweeps is to get people off the streets and into shelters. They also contend the program has helped cut down on crime in the city - without putting additional police on the streets. Crime was down 22 percent last year.
But critics contend that arresting people for panhandling only leaves them with a bad police record - hurting their chances of finding a job. They also say there aren't enough shelters to accommodate all the homeless, forcing them onto the streets.
``You can't brush the homeless out of sight with a get-tough attitude,'' says Greg Winter, a spokesman for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. ``The fair market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $1,047 a month, and too many people simply can't afford that.''
Advocacy groups see the homeless problem growing in the city. Mr. Winters says the ``average monthly turnaways [number] from the city's emergency shelters here was about 7,000 a couple of years ago; now the figure is around 14,000.''
Most city officials and social agencies agree that the number of homeless in San Francisco is between 8,000 and 12,000, and the fastest growing segment of the homeless is families with children.
According to a recent controversial report by the mayor's Homeless Budget Advisory Task Force, set up to find long-range solutions, 63 percent of the money the city spends on the homeless goes for emergency services. Less than 1 percent is spent on prevention or services connected to housing. Nearly $80 million in public and private money is spent on the homeless by the city.
``We have to put more money on the front end of the problem,'' says Rita Semel, task force chair, ``such as job training, day care, and schools, and then we won't need as much money on the back end of the problem.''