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PRESS RELEASE: Camping Citations Up

Homeless People Up in Arms

From LS Wilson and Elisa Dela-Piano, Coalition on Homelessness

[San Francisco] On Tuesday, March 22, at 11 a.m., homeless people, with the support of the Coalition on Homelessness, gathered on the Polk Street-side steps of City Hall to ask the Mayor about some numbers. Their question: "If there are fewer homeless people in San Francisco and the City is focusing its limited resources on 'Housing First,' why has the number of citations issued for camping in the city's parks nearly tripled over the past year?"

In sharp contrast to numerous recent attempts by the City at accurately quantifying the state of homelessness in San Francisco, these figures are undisputed. Data obtained by the Coalition on Homelessness regarding the City's prosecution of so-called "Quality of Life" infractions in San Francisco Municipal Court indicate that in 2003 (pre-Newsom), 436 tickets were handed out for "camping" in the City's parks; in 2004, that number rose sharply to 1,114. And the most recent figures available show this trend continuing: the January 2003 monthly ticket total was just 14, while under the current administration, January 2005 saw 63 would-be campers cited an average of more than two per day.

According to LS Wilson of the Coalition's Civil Rights Group, "In a sense, it's just business as usual to selectively enforce so-called 'Quality of Life' laws against poor and homeless people. By making everything homeless people do to survive on the streets illegal, it only makes it harder for them to exit homelessness."

Camping citations are particularly difficult for homeless people to expunge from their records, since clearing them involves paying a fine larger than most can afford, or negotiating the court system successfully without the benefit of a public defender or other court-appointed assistance. As a result, tickets turn into warrants and warrants to jail time, or free labor for the city through community service "a matter of grave concern," says Nicole Solis of the Public Defender's office.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, goes further. What he'd like to see is the creation of a "Clean Slate" program for homeless people whose "Quality of Life" citations have become warrants. Adachi explains, "Ideally, ticketing is viewed as intervention an impersonal push toward services; in reality, tickets are a deterrent. But if you could offer homeless people with citations a single point of entry to get those records expunged, you might have a chance of getting them back on track."

Perhaps when the City finally stops spending money and manpower on prosecuting "Quality of Life" offenses, it could free up these resources to help undo the damage they've created.