‘Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco’

by Bilal Ali

On June 18, an eager and diverse crowd of over 80 people waited for the release of the Coalition on Homelessness Report, “Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco,” an event held at the Hospitality House in the Tenderloin. Along with the report release, a video documenting true life stories of those affected by San Francisco’s policing of the homeless community and its negative effect on their lives was screened, and it received an emotional supportive response from those in the audience. A question and answer period followed the presentation of both the report and video.

'Punishing the Poorest,' COH report cover 0615This report details the effects of criminalization on homeless residents of San Francisco. Since 1981, San Francisco has passed more local measures to criminalize sleeping, sitting or panhandling in public spaces than any other city in the state of California. During this same period, the United States has experienced the greatest expansion of its jail and prison system under any democracy in history.

This expansion has primarily affected the poorest members of this society. The COH report documents and analyzes the impacts of the rising tide of anti-homeless laws in our era of mass incarceration on those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

This portrait of the impact of criminalization on homelessness in San Francisco is based on a citywide survey of 351 homeless people and 43 in-depth interviews carried out by volunteers at the Coalition on Homelessness and supervised by researchers at the UC Berkeley Center on Human Rights. It also analyzes data on policy, citations and arrests received from the San Francisco Police Department, the Sheriff ‘s Office, the Human Services Agency, and the Recreation and Park Department.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of each step in the criminalization of homelessness – from interactions with law enforcement, to the issuance and processing of citations, to incarceration and release.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of each step in the criminalization of homelessness.

The study makes evident how criminalization not only fails to reduce homelessness in public space, but also perpetuates homelessness, racial and gender inequality, and poverty even once one has exited homelessness. The aim of this study is to provide sound empirical data on the impacts of the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco, while also giving voice to the experiences of those whose housing status results in their regularly being processed through the city’s criminal justice system.

Since 1981, San Francisco has passed more local measures to criminalize sleeping, sitting or panhandling in public spaces than any other city in the state of California.

Our hope is that these findings will inform public discussions and provide the basis for thoughtful policy approaches to these issues. Below we present some of the most important findings from the San Francisco Homeless Criminalization Survey.

Our key findings

Homeless people are frequently approached by police in public spaces.

  • 74 percent of respondents reported being approached by police in a public space in the last year.
  • 20 percent of respondents reported being approached four or more times in the past month.
  • 12 percent of respondents reported being approached at least twice a week throughout the year. Homeless people are forced to move by law enforcement for being in public even when they have no other alternatives.
  • 70 percent of respondents had been forced to move from a public space.
  • For those forced to move, homelessness and housing status proved significant. In the past year 93 percent of those camping, 88 percent residing on the streets, 80 percent residing in vehicles, 72 percent staying with friends and families, 61 percent of those in shelter, and 55 percent of those currently in a residential hotel had been forced to move from public space. Anti-homeless laws are ineffective in moving homeless people out of public space or prohibiting targeted “criminal” activities such as sitting, standing or sleeping.
  • When respondents were asked to move from a public space, 70 percent of the time they simply moved down the street or around the corner, stayed in the same spot, or walked around to return after the police had left.
  • 22 percent of respondents moved to a different neighborhood when they were asked to move. However, the survey results showed that there was no unidirectional pattern, but rather a churning between neighborhoods and police districts.
  • Only 9 percent of respondents reported that they moved indoors the last time they were forced to move. Police interactions do not result in connection to services.
  • The SFPD is far and away the largest displacer – accounting for 84 percent of displacements, 204 of the 244 most recent displacements reported by respondents.
  • Services or even information on services were rarely offered by the SFPD. Only 24 out of the 204 respondents who reported being forced to move were offered services – most often a pamphlet, shelter bed or sandwich. Most homeless respondents were searched by police in the past year.
  • 56 percent of respondents reported having been searched while homeless; 21 percent reported that they had been searched within the month.
  • 46 percent of respondents reported having their belongings taken by City officials while homeless and 38 percent reported having belongings destroyed by City officials. “Quality of life” citations affected the majority of homeless respondents.
  • 69 percent of respondents were cited in the past year.
  • 22 percent of respondents received more than five citations in the past year.
  • 90 percent of respondents were unable to pay the fine for their last citation.
  • 68 percent of respondents reported that they were not able to pay their last citation due to non-payment. In San Francisco, this results in a $300 civil assessment fee being added to the base fine, an arrest warrant and suspension of one’s driver’s license.
  • Respondents noted that citations create barriers to exiting homelessness, negatively affecting access to jobs, housing and services. Most “quality of life” citations in San Francisco are aimed at activities associated with homelessness.
  • Between October 2006 and March 2014, the SFPD issued 51,757 citations for “quality of life crimes,” of which over 22,000 were for sleeping, sitting or begging.
  • More citations were given for sleeping and sitting than any other prohibited activities categorized as “quality of life” between 2007 and 2013.
  • Enforcement is increasingly aimed at sleeping, sitting and begging, accounting for 70 percent of all “quality of life” citations in 2013, the last year in which records were kept. Citations for anti-homeless offenses have increased over threefold since 2011.
  • Citations for anti-homeless laws are on the rise. Parks citations for sleeping and camping have grown sixfold, from 165 citations to 963 between 2011 and 2014. SFPD citations for sleeping, sitting and begging increased threefold from 1,231 tickets in 2011 to 3,350 in 2013. Incarceration perpetuates homelessness.
  • 59 percent of respondents had been incarcerated in San Francisco County Jail or California State Prison during their life and 44 percent of respondents had experienced multiple incarcerations, mainly in the last three years.
  • 11 percent of respondents reported that they had been housed at the time of their most recent arrest and became homeless upon release from jail or prison.
  • An estimated 25 percent of San Franciscans on probation are homeless.
  • 81 percent of respondents were not offered any services upon their most recent release from jail or prison. Of the 19 percent who were offered services, the most common were, in order: a pamphlet, a bus ticket, a shelter bed or access to a housing wait list. Criminalization disproportionately affected people of color, gender non-conforming people and those with mental illness.
  • People of color were approached more frequently by police: 81 percent of Black respondents and 84 percent of Latino, Native American and other non-Asian respondents of color had been approached by police, compared to 77 percent of white respondents and 69 percent of Asian respondents.
  • Black respondents reported the highest rate of past incarceration: 74 percent of Black respondents had been incarcerated, compared to 51 percent of white respondents.
  • Forced displacement from public space disproportionately threatened the safety of gender non-conforming people who participated in this study: 59 percent of gender non-conforming participants felt less safe after they were forced to move.
  • Those who identified as having mental disabilities reported higher rates of being approached by the police – a 10 percent increase – and higher rates of failure to address citations – again a 10 percent increase.

The report and video is available to download at http://www.cohsf.org/.

Bilal Ali, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, can be reached at mafundi421@gmail.com.