What are safe streets?

What are safe streets?

Mayoral task force looks for ways to protect people in San Francisco — from the homeless

By Amanda Witherell

The San Francisco Streets and Neighborhoods workgroup, convened by Mayor Gavin Newsom, sat down to its seventh meeting Sept. 9 “to analyze and understand the key issues impacting safety on our streets and formulate recommendations for needed improvement with the goal of creating a safe environment on our streets for everyone.”

Some of the top dogs on public safety were at the table, including Police Chief Heather Fong, fire department Capt. Pete Howes, representatives from the district attorney and public defender’s offices, and Kevin Ryan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, who co-chairs the group.

Were they here to discuss the recent spike in shootings in the Mission District? The murder of a Western Addition teenager three days earlier? The effectiveness of gang injunctions in those neighborhoods? The upcoming march on City Hall of students from June Jordan High School demanding leadership from the mayor on the rise in violence?

Not really. A quick survey of the agenda indicated most of the talk would be focused on another great threat to public safety: homeless people.

“One of the things we never talked about is what are the specific undesirable behaviors we’re focusing on,” facilitator Gary Koenig said to the group. Wielding a dry-erase marker at the whiteboard, he probed further, “In other words, the objective we set for ourselves had to do with safety on the streets. So what are the objectionable behaviors that make the street unsafe or make the street be perceived as unsafe by others?”

“Shooting people,” blurted Seth Katzman, a representative from the Human Services Network, a coalition of nonprofits.

The room erupted in laughter.

“I’m going to keep bringing it up,” he said, not laughing.

Koenig asked what other activities they were targeting, and a more telling picture emerged: drug dealing, aggressive panhandling, blocking the sidewalk, public urination and defecation, littering, intimidation.

“On intimidation,” said Chief Fong, “if you have someone walking down the street and they’re yelling out or blasting out, sometimes they’re talking to themselves and all of a sudden, ahh! People don’t know how to respond and think that maybe there’s going to be a next step in terms of some kind of aggressive behavior.”

“Would you call that scary behavior?” asked Koenig, marker poised to note.

“Just kind of unpredictable behavior in terms of how someone’s carrying themselves. They haven’t committed a crime, but …” Fong trailed off.

Koenig added “unpredictable behavior” to the list. “Remember, we’re really not talking about crimes here,” he said. “We’re talking about what are we focusing on to help improve safety and the sense of safety on our streets.”

That’s the real mission of the group: to make downtown more comfortable for tourists, shoppers, business owners, and condo residents; and more uncomfortable for homeless and poor people panhandling, loitering, urinating in public, acting strangely, getting loaded, or sleeping on the streets.

The group was clearly weighted toward enforcement, but coordinated with buy-in from those who demonize the homeless and those who defend them: Ryan, a law-and-order Republican, shares chair duties with the Rev. John Hardin, executive director of the homeless services nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation. Others at the meeting included Steve Falk of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; Heather Hoell of Yerba Buena Alliance; Joe D’Alessandro, CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Bobbie Rosenthal from Local Homeless Coordinating Board; Anne Kronenberg of the Department of Public Health; Reginald Smith from the 10-Year Council on Homelessness; Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness; Human Services Agency director Trent Rhorer; and Dariush Kayhan, the mayor’s homeless policy director.

Their ultimate goal is to come up with a handful of recommendations for a street safety pilot project that Newsom will implement in two neighborhoods within six months. The group’s task, on this day, was to weed through the list and decide what the group would endorse.

So far all the proposals have targeted poor and homeless people with enhanced services, punishment threats, and new restrictions on street life. Suggestions ranged from establishing drug-free and “VIP” zones in the downtown business and tourist areas (which came from the Chamber) to COH’s suggestion to fully fund treatment on demand. But all agreed that money is tight.

“If we did a lot of the service things, we probably wouldn’t be doing a lot of the others,” Hardin noted early in the meeting, indicating the enforcement and justice items.

The mayor has not set aside any funding to implement the pilot projects, according to Kayhan. And that reality steered the group away from social services and toward crackdowns.

For example, Friedenbach suggested the chronic inebriate program run by DPH does a good job, but said that it’s underfunded and should be evaluated and expanded. Koenig asked DPH’s Anne Kronenberg if this is possible.

“You know it all comes down to money,” she replied. “There’s a little disconnect going on for me. What we’re saying is good but I also know what the budget situation is in the city. That’s one [sticking point] where if we could get the mayor on board … or some other creative way of funding.”

“Money is a real issue,” Rhorer piped up. “So I’m thinking maybe if it’s a high cost item, we take it off the list.” Yet, he added, “I totally agree the chronic inebriate program needs to be expanded to more placement facilities.”

Instead, it was removed from the list.

“The problem is, if we take out some of these matters, what we’re going to be left with is enforcement ordinances and the justice system. And I think we all agreed a long time ago the idea isn’t to incarcerate people, but to get housing and services for them,” Katzman complained. “It’s going to leave us with the stick and not the carrot.”

Recommendations in the “stick” category included establishing “drug free zones” with enhanced penalties for dealing, using, and possession. Similar zones already exist within 1,000 feet of schools and parks in San Francisco, but have been implemented more broadly in other cities.

After discussing the constitutionality of making one street corner drug-free but not others, some suggested folding it in with another idea on the list: VIP zones.

“What does VIP stand for?” someone asked.

“Very Important Person,” someone else answered.

“How about B and T? Business and tourism zones?” Rhorer suggested. “Marketing of VIP sounds a little more difficult.”

According to the description on the meeting agenda, VIP zones would be established around downtown, the Yerba Buena center, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square as areas subject to “special enforcement of drug laws, aggressive panhandling, sitting/lying on sidewalks” and other “quality of life crimes.”

Defending the idea, D’Alessandro said, “Just from our perspective, tourism generates $500 million a year in local taxes that fund a lot of the programs we’re talking about at this table. And we’re very threatened. We’ve lost a lot of business.” He said one convention bailed because a visitor was spit on.

“There’s obviously huge problems with this. It’s specifically targeting people because of their status, their housing status,” Friedenbach said, sarcastically suggesting they have a registration for homeless people entering certain areas of the city.

“I think we have to separate aggressive panhandling and blocking thoroughfares from poverty,” D’Alessandro said. “This is not targeting poor people.”

“When you say sitting and lying on the sidewalk, that is targeting people who don’t have a place to sit,” Friedenbach countered.

“Maybe we don’t do this unless we provide places to sit,” D’Alessandro replied.”

“Like more drop-in centers,” Rhorer offered.

But temporary places to sit and sleep don’t seem like part of Newsom’s vision. Since he took office, more than 400 shelter beds have been lost. In March, Newsom defunded the only city-funded 24-hour drop-in center serving both men and women.

By the end of the meeting, many of the ideas for enhancing services remained in play, like ramping up Project Homeless Connect and the Homeless Outreach Teams, as well as more drop-in centers, housing, and job programs. All of the law enforcement–oriented changes were still on the list, including implementing the drug-free and VIP zones.

Speaking afterward, Katzman returned to the issue of what defines safety, and for whom. “We have tenants and clients in the Tenderloin who are afraid to go out of their buildings at night because of drug-related violence. They’re not complaining to us about people peeing on the streets,” he said. “No one likes it, but that’s not the big issue right now.”

Originally published September 17, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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