by TJ Johnston
In the span of one month, police in San Francisco ordered Beti to move off the sidewalk at least 10 times. The 75-year-old retired nurse — who asked that his last name not be used — recalled his most recent displacement occurring at 5 a.m. at the hands of the authorities.
“This morning I had just fallen asleep,” he said. “I set up my tent, got in, laid down, wrapped up and had fallen asleep until I heard a familiar tap. After tonight, (the police) said they would start citing again. It’s like a terrorization game, a means of harassment, and it makes me feel helpless, looking for little spots.”
Even with the numerous times Beti was forced to move along, his case is by no means isolated. Homeless people like him are constantly asked to move out of public spaces, according to a new report from the Coalition on Homelessness.
The majority of homeless and marginally housed people, the San Francisco-based homeless advocacy organization found, said that city workers — usually police officers — order them to leave, and that they received citations for nothing more than sitting, resting or sleeping outside. Furthermore, the enforcement of ordinances prohibiting such activities often leads to arrest, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.
On June 18, the Coalition on Homelessness, publisher of the Street Sheet, released its findings in a new report, “Punishing the Poorest: How San Francisco’s Policy of Criminalizing Poverty Perpetuates Homelessness.”
A research team that the Coalition assembled, including currently and formerly homeless people, surveyed 351 homeless and marginally housed city residents. Additionally, peer researchers interviewed on video 43 people who described their experiences with law enforcement in detail.
These stories bolstered the data that was collected late last year. The research was supervised by Chris Herring and Dilara Yarbrough, doctoral candidates in the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley. (Disclosure: The author of this story participated in both the data collection and peer interviewing.)
According to the study, 70 percent of homeless people said that authorities asked them to move out of a public outdoor space, and nearly as many were given tickets for activities in public space. Also, 64 percent said they complied by moving, usually down the street.
The Coalition on Homelessness recommended that San Francisco repeal laws used to target homeless people and stop ticketing them for offenses related to homelessness. The report also recommended that police prioritize serious crimes instead.
Assad Deiche, a 30-year-old African American man who is living at the recently opened Navigation Center, has been arrested about 15 times already. Like others interviewed for the study, he often is searched by police and sometimes is arrested for minor offenses.
“They basically searched me and told me to take off my clothes and put on their clothes (a jumpsuit), and they put me in a jail cell,” he said. “That was for an open container, and that was for a couple of days that I remember.”
Beneeta Ardion, a 57-year-old Street Sheet vendor, said she feels safest sleeping at the Powell Street BART station or on the trains. Last year, the Bay Area-wide transit agency drew fire for ordering its police officers to evict homeless people who sleep or lie down by the walls along the station. The Coalition on Homelessness led a sit-in protest against the policy. Often, Ardion is ordered to move along and relocate.
“Every day, it’s a different place,” she said. “This morning, we’re sleeping on the sidewalk and (The Department of Public Works) have to wash the sidewalk.”
San Francisco has gained notoriety for its heavy reliance on police in responding to homelessness, and for its many laws directed against homeless people.
According to a recent study from the UC Berkeley Law School’s Policy Advocacy Clinic, San Francisco takes the lead among California cities by enacting 23 municipal ordinances that restrict where people can sit, lie or rest outdoors.
The Coalition’s study bears this out, with 69 percent of the study’s respondents saying they have received citations in the past year. From October 2006 to March 2014, San Francisco police issued 51,757 tickets for so-called “quality of life” offenses, with more than 22,000 of those citations for sleeping, sitting or panhandling.
Most of the respondents in the Coalition’s survey said they were unable to pay for their last citation. Failure to pay these fines results in arrest warrants — something to which Ardion can attest.
“It does leave me at risk,” she said. “Every time they run my name, they tell me. What am I going to court for? I don’t have any money. I don’t want to go through ‘community service.’ Why am I being punished for getting tired?”
The majority of survey respondents — 59 percent — said that they had been incarcerated in the county jail or state prison, and most were already homeless before their last stint in custody. Others, such as Miles, who camps out at Fort Mason and requested his last name not be given, eventually lost their housing because of incarceration. The end of Miles’ marriage set off a chain of events that resulted in homelessness.
“I was arguing with my wife, and it ended when my wife dialed 911,” he said. The police, he added, were sure they would find illegal drugs on him. “They wanted $8,000 out of my wallet. They didn’t let me call work to explain (what happened). It took two and a half or three days to explain to work why I was MIA.”
The Coalition on Homelessness also found that when homeless people get arrested, it rarely results in connecting them with services upon release. Only 11 percent of arrestees said they were offered anything to alleviate their situation. Usually, it was just a pamphlet, a shelter bed or a one-way bus ticket out of the city. That offer of services is likely to be accompanied with a warning.
Miles recalled one cop’s offer to “help” and how ineffective it was. “This one officer, he told me I’d get a hot meal and housed. I knew right away he didn’t know what he was talking about,” he said.
The officer drove him from the tony Nob Hill neighborhood to the much poorer Tenderloin and dropped him off at St. Anthony’s dining room.
“He said he was an ‘emergency intervention specialist.’ In the back of his car, he had the most fancy sniper rifle I’ve ever seen. Good at finding housing for homeless, he was not.”
Beti said that mistreatment from police comes with the territory, especially when taking his identity as a gay, transgender man into account.
“When I’m interacting with police, they automatically address the situation as ‘man up, take care of your own problems,’” he said. “I’ve had many wonderful interactions with the police, but the bad ones outweigh the good.”
What little services are offered to people exiting jail or prison is connected to the person’s probation, said Janetta Johnson, program director of the Transgender Intersex Justice Project. Her advocacy organization provides correspondence with transgender people who are in custody.
“For some reason, I’m not seeing a lot of re-entry support (in San Francisco),” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of stuff over the Internet about supportive re-entry, but in terms of particular re-entry services, I’m not seeing it.”
Assad Deiche said he was turned down for Supplemental Security Income three times because of repeated lockups. To him, jail “kind of slowed benefits down.” He added, “It just delays what I’m trying to do what is good for me.”
In the video interviews with peer researchers, some of the subjects address the onus placed on homeless people when they’re under supervision of parole and probation officers once they leave custody. It’s a common practice, they say, for officers to inquire about probation or parole status first thing off.
A transgender woman who chooses to be identified as Sindi said that was her experience. “It seems that’s their first question they want to know,” she said, “because if you answer ‘yes,’ they’ll treat you differently than being homeless, like if you robbed a bank or something.”
Beti also said that police frequently ask him about probation or parole. “That’s the first thing they would ask,” he said. “It’s not ‘what’s your name?’ or ‘do you have ID?’ It’s ‘are you on probation or on parole? Are you on paper?’”
Beti added that this line of questioning makes him feel horrible. “They’re not interested in who I am as a person. They want to know if it was worth them doing any investigation to the circumstances they were there for.”
Apparently, police are allowed to ask anyone with a history of being in the criminal justice system that question, according to Larry Roberts of the Public Defender’s office.
“Under most circumstances, you are not obligated to answer any of his questions other than to state your true name,” he said.
“If you are on probation or parole and a condition of your probation and parole is that you disclose this to any law enforcement officer on demand or contact, failing to do so may be a violation of your probation or parole and cause to send you back to prison.” He added that a police officer could easily search that information if given a name.
The study shows that African Americans and other people of color were approached by cops, forced to move, ticketed and searched more often than whites. It was also the consensus among the video interviewees that police target minorities and poor people, as opposed to whiter and wealthier people.
In the last year, studies from Seattle University, UC Berkeley and the National Coalition for the Homeless also noted a trend of criminalizing homeless people.