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VOLUME 1, NUMBER 32    <>   MONDAY, AUGUST 14, 2000

sweep.jpg (44364 bytes)


standing on the corner


[Mayor Frank] Jordan's failure to provide leadership in attacking the root causes of homelessness has actually led many in our neighborhoods to conclude that our city is incapable of solving the problems that face us. As a believer in activist government, I view this as perhaps the most critical failure of the past four years.

Willie L. Brown, Jr., November 30, 1995

Talk to homeless people these days, and they’ll tell you they’re feeling a tad unsettled. They’ll tell you that the police have been doling out a lot of tickets, and not to Giants’ games.

The Coalition on Homelessness reports that there’s been a surge in car towing in China Basin and an increased police presence in the area, where for many years people have lived in their cars relatively undisturbed. As preparations progress on the massive Mission Bay build-out, it’s likely that blue uniforms will be even more in evidence in the former Santa Fe Pacific wasteland.

The Coalition has also chronicled an increase in citations issued to street people in the Haight, where — it argues — a new police captain, James Dudley, is beginning his command with a bang. As San Francisco districts go, the Park Station serves a fairly low crime area, according to monthly police figures. But an article in the August Street Sheet notes that the "sweeps" of the past two and a half months have addressed not crimes but misdemeanors. And police have kept a low profile, eschewing the traditional confiscation of property that tends to anger outside observers. As a result, there have been no incendiary videos showing city employees "gleefully tearing shopping carts out of the hands of homeless ‘running away for their lives’ kids."

People on the street talk about other parts of the city as well. Their observations are not scientific, merely anecdotal: the story of a man in SOMA who was cited four times in one day for sitting on the sidewalk; a woman who asks for spare jackets but adds, "We may not be here when you come back."

Adam Arms, an attorney for the Coalition, offers statistics: in 1999 the SFPD issued 23,000 citations for quality of life violations — trespassing, blocking the sidewalk, camping in the parks. Do the math. Spread out evenly, this comes to more than 60 citations a day, or about 5 every two hours. And 12,000 more were handed out during the first half of this year, suggesting that we’ll begin the new millennium with a brand new record, one that will put Mayor Jordan’s 16,000 Matrix citations in 1995 to deep head-hanging shame.

There’s a lot of talk these days, among people off the street, about these perceived threats to their quality of life. Sometimes they have a point. It’s understandable when a shopkeeper tired of cleaning feces off his stoop posts a yellow "No Trespassing" sign to prevent unwanted visitors from sleeping in his doorway. But to carry this line of thinking farther toward its logical conclusion, as Council of District Merchants head Chris Dittenhafer did at a housing conference conducted by Our Mayor’s Committee 2000 last May, is to

approach unconstitutionality. Dittenhafer sketched out a situation where "an individual spends lots of time and energy and money starting a business." Before he knows it, "his success attracts a panhandler who takes some of the money people would spend in his store." The next step: the shopkeeper finds a natural ally in the cop who is trying to preserve order in the neighborhood. And it becomes all too comfortable to bust unsavory-looking people just for standing or sitting on the sidewalk.

It also becomes all too illegal. A person on the sidewalk in front of a store is not trespassing; he is simply occupying one small part of public property. And if passersby must walk around him, that’s legal, too. It’s spelled out in nice, clear language in the very first part of the San Francisco Police Code: "No person shall wilfully and substantially obstruct the free passage of any person or persons on any street, sidewalk, passageway or other public place." The courts take adverbs very seriously. The operative one here is "wilfully." The courts take their constitutional mandate very seriously as well. For this reason, the code includes a careful caveat: "It is not intended that this Section shall apply where its application would result in an interference with or inhibition of any exercise of the constitutionally protected right of freedom of speech or assembly." In other words, they think that just hangin’ is OK.


Oh yes, this week’s lead photograph, which was taken about noon on Wednesday, August 9, at the corner of 5th and Bryant. No doubt, it was just a social visit. When asked, no one at the Southern police station could come up with any information about the incident.