Taking it out on the victims in SF

October 18, 2010

Derron Thweatt looks at a measure in San Francisco that would criminalize homelessness--and how it is being used to further the career of Mayor Gavin Newsom.

THE PROPOSED anti-homeless "sit/lie law" in San Francisco, Proposition L, which has been heavily pushed by current Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom, does more than give police free reign to pick and choose who is breaking the law. Prop L shows capitalism's "solution" to homelessness: punish those who are most abused by the system.

The current proposed sit/lie law would make it a criminal act to sit or lie down on a public sidewalk, or to have an object on the sidewalk such as a cardboard box, from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. If found breaking the law, a person would receive a warning first. Continued violations would lead to:

-- For the first offense, a fine of $50-$100 and/or community service;

For a repeat offense within 24 hours of a citation, a fine of $300-$500, and/or community service, and/or up to 10 days in jail;

For a repeat offense within 120 days of a conviction, a fine of $400-$500, and/or up to 30 days in jail.

Rather than help the many who are homeless because of reasons beyond their control, this law would criminalize them.

A homeless woman rests on the sidewalk in San Francisco
A homeless woman rests on the sidewalk in San Francisco (David Lytle)

Unfortunately, this proposed law is not new to San Francisco.

Sit/lie has been proposed several times and was even put into place during the late 1960s, before it was repealed in the 1970s. In 1968, the first sit/lie law, Section 20 of the Municipal Police Code, known as MPC 20, didn't allow anyone to sit, lie or sleep on the sidewalks of San Francisco. Opponents of the law during this time called it "anti-hippie," while the proponents of the law included the Haight-Ashbury Merchant and Improvement Association. However, hippies were not the only ones targeted by this law. It was used during the 1970s to target LGBT people, especially gay men in the Castro district.

The Coalition on Homelessness of San Francisco, in a position paper on the proposed sit/lie ordinance, mentioned a case that happened on September 7, 1974, "when police officers beat a young man outside of a gay bar, arrested him and 13 others, and charged all with MPC 20. Harvey Milk--not yet a supervisor--dubbed the men the 'Castro 14,' and turned their abused into a local cause célèbre."

In May 1979, the ACLU challenged the law on behalf of LGBT rights groups and, later that year, the law was struck down.

But, this was not the last time this law was proposed, and in 1994, former Mayor Frank Jordan proposed another version of sit/lie called Proposition M to go on that year's November ballot. Proposition M would have barred the homeless from 15 percent of the city. The San Francisco Democratic Party and the Green Party at the time both opposed the measure and, during the November elections, voters did not pass the law.

Sit/lie is now making another comeback in San Francisco in the November elections and the reasons for the law have not changed since its previous incarnations.

THE PEOPLE who support the sit/lie law are those who don't have any interests in helping the homeless community, but rather have their business interests in mind.

Scott Zachary runs a nightclub in the Tenderloin district and spoke at a press conference on April 28 called by the Community Leadership Alliance. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Zachary stated that he supports sit/lie because "it may also reduce the overall homeless population in San Francisco, by discouraging people from coming to our city to beg for money."

During the press conference, Zachary was asked if the Community Leadership Alliance supported more resources for homeless services, which could reduce the number of people living on the streets. He responded, "That's a whole other topic."

There is also Arthur Evans, a long-time resident of the Haight-Ashbury district, where this law would be specifically used. Evans also spoke at the same press conference and claimed, based on his own "surveys" of the people who live on the Haight sidewalks, that many did not become homeless within San Francisco. He's convinced the people living on the sidewalks are "migratory packs of addicts and alcoholics that move up and down the West Coast, and look for places where there is weak law enforcement and an abundance of drugs."

In a San Francisco Chronicle article, journalist John Cote wrote, "Newsom's so-called sit/lie proposal grew out of a grassroots movement in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where some residents and store owners complained that thugs camped on the sidewalks and harassed passers-by."

The proponents pushing the law are not grassroots by any means and are using tons of money to push for this law to come in effect. Sit/lie proponents have no proposals to help people who are homeless and have no understanding of how people become homeless in the first place. They would rather get rid of elements that could drive their property values down and disrupt their businesses.

This law is the solution that capitalism puts forth: sweep away any undesired elements of society and not fight the true problems that harm society.

OTHER CITIES such as Seattle and Los Angeles have similar laws on the books. These laws are capitalism's solution to push people most marginalized by society out of sight, instead of finding solutions to end homelessness. During the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, social services are some of the first things to be cut, while banks receive federal bailouts, and solutions such as ending all foreclosures, for instance, are not even on the table.

Nor has the government done enough to protect the homeless from hate crimes. According to an August 2010 report entitled "Hate Crimes Against the Homeless" conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, "[v]iolent, often fatal, attacks on homeless Americans now outnumber all other categories of hate crimes combined." Also, the report found that "California and Florida were the most deadly places for homeless to live in 2010 with more than 100 violent attacks upon the homeless in each; 213 were reported in California, 117 in Florida."

Proponents of the law claim that it would help with public safety, but with the amount of hate crimes targeted towards the homeless, who would it really help?

The law would not have helped Sarah Elza's family. "My brother and sister were homeless for years," she said, "so this is a very personal issue for me. Three hundred homeless people in San Francisco died last year on city streets. How is this city taking action to protect them and acknowledge their needs? The wealthy and people with businesses are trying to push the homeless away from communities."

Instead of the wealthy and politicians working towards ways to end attacks on the homeless and fund programs which can assist communities hit hardest by the economic crisis, politicians such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is running for lieutenant governor of California, are using homelessness as political gain.

Newsom in particular is using this ballot measure to show that a politician from San Francisco can be tough on crime and homelessness--and appeal to conservative sections of the state. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsom, who has been seen by some as an LGBT-friendly politician, put the measure on the November ballot even after a similar measure was voted down by the city supervisors.

Newsom is proving in practice not to be LGBT-friendly--because this law would target the sizeable numbers of LGBT homeless youth who come to San Francisco because they have been kicked out by their families or other reasons.

Sit/lie, however, has not come without a challenge, as a broad coalition of labor, LGBT rights, youth, immigrant rights, and socialist groups throughout the city have come together to fight the law.

At a recent bake sale against the sit/lie measure at Harvey Milk Plaza in the city's Castro district, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime LGBT activist who helped to organize the first gay pride march in Philadelphia in 1972 and currently works around issues of poverty and housing in San Francisco, stated: "It's so obvious [this law] isn't a solution to anything. I think at its best it's a political ploy to fuck with elections in November. It's more about that than creating solutions to problems on Haight Street. "

Mecca went on to explain that even though the proposed law is supposed to be mostly focused on Haight Street, it will be used as a wedge issue in other districts to try and prevent progressives from getting into office there. If progressives were to win those seats, then they would have a veto-proof majority on the board of supervisors.

Basic human needs should be top priority, not corporate profitability or home values. Gavin Newsom and business owners have made it well known that they would rather see people on the street than provide services that could help all of society.

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