The Other Side Of Zero-Tolerance Enforcement In The Haight

A tent in Golden Gate Park. (Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline)
By Camden Avery - Published on November 13, 2015.

As we've recently noted, the impact of homelessness in the Haight has been renewed as a top concern at the SFPD's Park Station and neighborhood organizations over the past month.

Last week, we reported on the Park Station's new task force established to clean up the street and reduce quality-of-life violations, a crackdown which police say has resulted in a 90 percent reduction over a month in the number of offenses.

The keystone of the task force's efforts, according to Capt. Sanford and Sgt. Meyer, who leads the task force, was a zero-tolerance policy: according to Capt. Sanford, "They all go to jail. We book them all."

While a zero-tolerance, 100 percent arrest policy for all quality-of-life violations—Sit/Lie among them—has been met with results and a warm reception by some readers in the neighborhood, some attendees at this week's Park Station meeting criticized the enforcement as outsized and short-sighted.

Christian Calinsky, co-founder of Taking It To The Streets, said in an email that a zero-tolerance policy "does nothing to or for the individuals except get them into the system and off the street for a second. The only real help ... is housing and services, not just services."

Kristen Marshall, from local outreach organization Homeless Youth Alliance, voiced a similar position, saying:

"Zero-tolerance policing is absolutely not the best approach to reducing 'quality of life' violations. This kind of policing further punishes the poorest and most disenfranchised citizens in our city, including our homeless communities, and it doesn't solve anything ... Even the pro-zero tolerance neighbors, and police officers themselves, admit that sit/lie ultimately does nothing ... It moves people down the block for a few hours; then they're back where they started from the next day. It's just a very expensive game of musical chairs."

Marshall emphasized the inefficacy of increased enforcement when there are insufficient resources in place—showers, or city beds, for example—to actually reduce the number of people living homeless in San Francisco.

She said that in addition to not providing a long-term solution for homelessness, a zero-tolerance policy negatively impacts transients' sense of safety and their ability to sleep, make money, and coexist in the community. The legal implications of having citation after citation issued and no money to pay fines undermines a homeless person's ability to ever get a job and transition into a self-sustaining lifestyle, she said.

"Homelessness is not predictive of criminality," she said. "Homelessness is not indicative of a criminal bent. It's indicative of two things and two things only: extreme poverty, and massive policy failure."

We spoke yesterday afternoon with a man working for Taking It To The Streets, which employs him to help walk up and down Haight Street and collect trash and debris. The man, who declined to be named, has an amputation below the knee of one leg and gets around on crutches. Asked how zero-tolerance policing has affected him, he said, "It's affected me drastically because I have to stand up all day." He added,"I'm legally allowed to sit on the sidewalk to rest, and [the police] still ticket me for obstructing the sidewalk," even though they can't legally cite him for Sit/Lie violations.

At this week's Park Station meeting, Sgt. Meyer noted the difference the stepped-up enforcement has made. "If you've walked on Haight Street lately, it's extremely clear that what we're doing is having an impact," he said.

But the Taking It To The Streets worker has noticed another side of the zero-tolerance policing: "My friends are all gone, nobody's here anymore."

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