City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
San Francisco Gets Tough with the Homeless
A cop-turned-mayor keeps his pledge to take back the streets--and teaches some important social policy lessons.
Autumn 1994

Cities across the country are engaged in a great experiment: having lost control of their public spaces, can they reclaim them?

Over the last three decades, judicial rulings and changing social attitudes stripped governments of the legal and moral authority to enforce public order. Courts struck down loitering and vagrancy statutes—traditional tools for controlling antisocial behavior and even preventing crime. Elite opinion wrapped panhandling, graffiti, and public inebriation in the protective mantle of self-expression and political protest, branding attempts to penalize such conduct as oppressive and racist.

The timing for this loss of authority could not have been worse. As the breakdown of the family, exploding drug use, and the lack of long-term care for the mentally ill brought legions of dysfunctional people into the streets, cities found they had few means left to respond to increasing disorder. The results are visible in nearly every large or medium-sized city today. Certain areas—usually public parks—have become de facto safe zones for lawlessness. Sidewalks resemble obstacle courses. Businesses located where beggars and vagrants congregate are losing customers to private malls; neighborhoods are losing residents to the suburbs.

But a revulsion at what the liberal social attitudes of the last three decades have wrought is now sweeping the country, producing some surprising turnarounds. Despite fierce criticism from civil libertarians and homeless advocates cities that once led the campaign against bourgeois values are now leading the effort to resuscitate those values. Debate has been raging in Berkeley, California, home of the Free Speech Movement and the People’s Park, over a proposed ordinance to prohibit panhandling at night, outside store entrances, near ATMs, or directed at people getting in and out of their cars. “We’re losing good, loyal customers because they are afraid, intimidated, or just tired of being attacked five times between their car and our store,” says Barbara Maiss, manager of a stationery store. Opponents of the ordinance decry the “death of compassion in Berkeley.” Voters will decide the issue in November.

So too in Seattle. In 1980, the city decriminalized defecating and urinating in public—an outgrowth of the “do-your-own-thing, give-everyone-his-space” spirit of the 1970s, according to City Attorney Sandra Cohen. Today, Seattle has a serious hygiene problem behind buildings and in doorways; tourists complain bitterly when tour guides take them through alleys in the historic Pioneer District. In 1993, the city recriminalized public urination and defecation, prompting the Seattle Homeless Advocacy Group to proclaim urinating in doorways “a political statement that there are not enough toilets.”

More controversially, Seattle passed another ordinance in 1993, which outlaws sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks from 7 AM to 9 PM. A federal court upheld the law in March 1994; protesters, wearing T-shirts depicting the city attorney as a Nazi have occupied the offices of city council members and torn down signs notifying people of the law.

Santa Cruz, California, which only a few years ago outlawed “lookism”—discrimination on the basis of personal appearance—passed a “truth in begging” law in March 1994 that prohibits panhandlers from lying about their needs or the intended use of the alms, and from begging while under the influence. The law also forbids begging in front of buildings, at bus stops, while seated on or leaning against public benches or public property, or within three feet of the person solicited.

Neil Coonerty, the council member responsible for the anti-lookism law and a radical even by easygoing Santa Cruz standards, was the panhandling ordinance’s main champion. The reason: his downtown bookstore was losing business. The new law, he said, “will send a message that there are limits to our tolerance in Santa Cruz.” Following the vote on the ordinance, someone shattered the front window of his store with a brick.

All in all, more than two dozen cities have passed laws against aggressive panhandling. The New York City Police Department is training a team of plainclothes police officers to encourage the homeless to move to shelters; Cincinnati has removed the public benches used by beggars; Atlanta prohibits loitering in abandoned buildings or entering a parking lot without reclaiming a car; and half a dozen cities with large homeless encampments have tried, with mixed legal results, to enforce laws against camping in public spaces.

No city, however, has waged the campaign to reclaim the streets more vigorously than San Francisco, and nowhere has the effort yielded more significant results. For in its twin efforts to restore order and help the homeless get off the street, San Francisco is discovering what many social workers have secretly known for years: you can lead the homeless to housing and services, but you can’t guarantee they will use them. Increasing the resources available to the homeless without also penalizing the failure to use them may have only a marginal effect on the condition of the streets. This discovery has profound implications for the Clinton administration’s homeless policy, which has made record spending on housing and services its centerpiece.

San Francisco’s fairy-tale setting belies an often nightmarish street scene. The city’s generous welfare policies and limitless tolerance have drawn an army of vagrants, addicts, and hippie wannabes eager to recreate the Summer of Love. Until recently, wildly gesticulating men routinely hounded pedestrians; petty scam artists accosted tourists waiting for the cable car at Powell Street. For many business owners, opening shop in the morning meant waking the vagrant in the doorway and cleaning up leftover food and human waste.

The Transbay Terminal, a heavily used commuter hub, doubled at night as a de facto psychiatric ward and crack den for two to four hundred transients. In June 1993, state police reported 203 crimes at the terminal, including homicide, attempted rape, kidnapping, and robbery. Amtrak pulled out of its lease after a fatal shooting in August 1993.

The symbolic center of San Francisco’s homeless problem, however, was Civic Center Plaza, a large open space in front of City Hall. A shantytown of lean-tos, tents, mattresses, and couches in the center of the plaza housed hundreds of men and women. Dubbed “Camp Agnos” in mockery of former mayor Art Agnos’s failed social policies, the encampment was a breeding ground for crime. People ascending the urine-soaked stairs of the parking lot underneath the plaza were greeted by the sight of prostitutes earning their pay in broad daylight and junkies shooting up heroin. Maintenance workers had to clean up around the residents or fight with them to move.

For years, San Francisco tried, and failed, to solve its homeless problem with money and services. In addition to its $55 million General Assistance budget—a welfare grant for able-bodied men and women without young children—the city spends $50 million a year on homeless services. It funds 4,155 beds in a dozen shelters, alcohol treatment programs, free health and dental care, housing grants, feeding centers, and an array of other services for a homeless population estimated at between three and six thousand.

The indirect costs of homelessness dwarfed even these hefty direct costs. An April 1992 study attributed to the homeless a $173 million drain in retail and restaurant sales in the city. The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau used to receive constant complaints about harassment from tourists; a city whose largest industry is tourism—$4 billion annually—takes such complaints very seriously. Some of the city’s regular convention clients began to consider a change of venue.

Seething frustration with San Francisco’s declining quality of life produced the upset victory of former police chief Frank Jordan over Mayor Art Agnos in 1991—the first time an incumbent had been unseated since 1943. Jordan had promised to crack down on panhandling and to put the homeless in work camps. For many, San Francisco’s embrace of a tough cop over a former social worker symbolized a revolution in the city’s political culture.

Early in his term, though, Jordan seemed to abandon his original goals. Rather than moving aggressively against street crime, he spoke of addressing “root causes” and avoiding “punitive measures.” His popularity plummeted amidst the widespread perception that his administration had lost its focus. But in 1992, Jordan showed that he had not forgotten why he was elected, by proposing a ballot initiative against aggressive panhandling. The measure passed by a 10-point margin, over the opposition of the leftist Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s equivalent of a city council) and every liberal group in the city.

Hours after the initiative passed, police officer Steven Murphy was stabbed by a beggar who had hounded him for money and had just slashed his truck tire. “This is the kind of stuff that happens when the police are not allowed to do their job,” warned Murphy, after four hours of surgery for a severed artery in his arm.

As if taking this admonition to heart, the next August Mayor Jordan announced Matrix—a month-long program for enforcing in the downtown area 18 city and state ordinances that had fallen into disuse. Designed to ensure order in public places, they covered offenses such as public drunkenness, public urination and defecation, trespassing, street sales of narcotics, dumping of refuse, graffiti vandalism, camping and lodging in public parks, and obstructing sidewalks. Teams of 12 to 18 officers made regular tours through the Civic Center Plaza, a four-block stretch of Market Street, and Union Square—a once-posh shopping district that had succumbed to urban squalor.

Matrix represented a major law-enforcement change. “Before, when the police arrested the homeless, they came under political criticism,” says police Commander Dennis Martel, who heads the enforcement effort. “When you’re getting whacked, you stop doing things. Our officers backed off, and the problems only got worse.” But the public response to Matrix was jubilant. Seventy-five percent of the calls to the mayor’s communications office were favorable, expressing such sentiments as, “I hope [Jordan] doesn’t back down from pressure from the liberals,” and “It’s about time something was done; keep it up!”

On September 1, Jordan announced that the program would be extended for another month and would include the Mission District south of Market Street. Just a week later, however, in response to public demand, the police declared that Matrix would become part of regular law enforcement city-wide. Officers in each of San Francisco’s ten police districts drew up plans to integrate the program into their beats.

The Matrix enforcement effort unfolded like a military campaign, retaking the city block by block. Every ten days or so, Matrix teams would announce a sweep of an additional area, chosen on the basis of citizen complaints. Cleaning up Civic Center Plaza took ten intensive days in January 1994. The effort yielded an additional benefit: police uncovered a Honduran drug ring based in Oakland that had used the Civic Center homeless as runners and stored cocaine in their shopping carts. Forty-six people were arrested for drug or weapons possession.

Homeless advocates have furiously opposed Matrix from the start. But the elimination of a large encampment in Golden Gate Park—a wild green refuge in the center of the city—especially fanned their ire. For years the encampment had rendered one end of the park off limits to normal use. The city concluded that the settlement had to be bulldozed to clear away heaps of hazardous debris. “I walked in myself and almost threw up,” said head gardener Jon Huttinger. “There was no way I would send my people into that area.”

The police warned the inhabitants and offered assistance in moving out. When the bulldozers arrived, only three people still had their belongings in the park. But the bulldozing provoked a barrage of charges from activists and the Board of Supervisors that the city had not given adequate notice. The supervisors threatened to cut the Recreation and Parks Department budget. With characteristic feistiness, Jordan refused to apologize for either the means or the timing of the clean-up. “If the encampments are depositories of human feces, rain-soaked garbage and trash, discarded needles, and other disgusting waste, we will not hesitate to use extraordinary measures to clean up the mess. I won’t expose city workers to health risks under any circumstances.”

Two months after Matrix began, Jordan broadened its mission to include social-service outreach. A team of two social workers, two mental-health workers, a substance-abuse specialist, and two police officers now roams the city, trying to coax the homeless into shelters, housing programs, or treatment for addiction or mental illness. Some speculate that Jordan expanded Matrix as insurance against a legal challenge: in Miami and in Santa Ana, California, courts had enjoined local efforts to break up homeless encampments on the ground that the city governments were not doing enough to help the homeless. Whatever the motivation, expanding Matrix made political sense in a city still deeply divided over the program.

Not that the outreach efforts have placated Jordan’s foes, who charge that the social-service teams are mere window dressing for police repression. But the members of the teams themselves see helping the homeless and reviving a code of civil behavior as complementary goals. “The outreach effort separates the victims from the volunteers,” says social worker Jerry Bibelheimer. “We’re trying to establish some accountability and force folks to do something with their lives, to the extent they understand they’re in trouble.” Bibelheimer believes that including police on the outreach teams increases the teams’ effectiveness: “Though the cops are humanitarian for the most part and will bend over backwards to help, the fact that they’re there causes people to say, ’Maybe I should look into this.’ It’s kind of coercive, but necessary.”

As the police extended their efforts through the Market District, the Castro, and the Van Ness and Polk Street corridors, Matrix’s critics charged that the program was merely driving the homeless and their attendant problems deeper into the city. The neighboring cities of Berkeley and Oakland complained of an influx of San Francisco’s homeless.

But Matrix has reduced, not just shuffled around, both violent crime and quality-of-life offenses. In the first five months of the enforcement efforts, serious crime dropped 25 percent. If some of that drop resulted from “displacement” to localities with less law enforcement, that certainly doesn’t invalidate the program.

Both homeless advocates and the press have criticized the small number of actual arrests and convictions as proof that the program is a waste of police resources. Most of the 16,000 police contacts under Matrix have entailed citing people and moving them along. But sending people to jail is not the point, says Jim Buick, director of Matrix in the Department of Social Services. Just admonishing people for quality-of-life offenses—as cops, up to a generation ago, had always done—conveys that antisocial behavior will no longer be tolerated.

Homeless advocates claim that Matrix penalizes the “status” of homelessness. But citations are given only for specific unlawful behavior, and, according to Commander Martel, less than 6 percent of citations have been for lodging or camping. Ten percent of police contacts have been for major felonies; the vast majority of citations are for public drunkenness and drug offenses.

Matrix has gone far toward returning order to public space. Though it would be a vast overstatement to say that people are no longer living in the streets in San Francisco, the appearance of the city has changed markedly. Before, two hundred people lived in front of City Hall; today, only a handful remain. The grass in the plaza has been resodded, the sidewalks steam-cleaned, the fountain—for years an open-air garbage pit—is flowing again. Pedestrians throughout the city face far less harassment than before the program began.

Matrix has also changed Jordan’s political fortunes. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen predicts that the program will reelect the mayor. A grassroots group collected donations of $15 and $20 to erect a billboard proclaiming: “Matrix works.” The Chamber of Commerce and the tourist industry, both ecstatic, report a major drop in quality-of-life complaints. Convention planners have kept the city on their lists.

Ironically, Matrix has made life safer for the homeless who remain on the streets. Joseph Mitchell was one of the holdouts who remained in Civic Center Plaza after the January sweep. “It was very ugly when I first came here,” he told the Chronicle in February. “At least now, you don’t have to worry about being stabbed or your stuff stolen.” Homeless deaths dropped 27 percent in 1993.

San Francisco’s diehard activists ignore such figures. Calling life under Matrix a “police state,” Angela Alioto, president of the Board of Supervisors and a likely challenger of Mayor Jordan, introduced a measure to grant amnesty for homeless people cited under the program. The measure went nowhere.

A protest campaign, however, is thriving. The radical group Food Not Bombs regularly holds feeding sessions in front of City Hall in violation of the law; an interfaith coalition has been staging sleep-outs at Civic Center Plaza and Union Square. These sleep-outs have been quite a hit throughout the Bay Area: one minister came up the peninsula from Palo Alto, as, in his words, “an act of solidarity with homeless people—to share for one night what they live every night.” A resolution signed by six hundred members of the clergy in January claimed that Matrix has “led to new levels of inhumanity and heartlessness toward homeless people.”

The religious protests may have worked in Jordan’s favor. Protesters have been arrested under the same anticamping laws as the homeless, buttressing Jordan’s point that Matrix is not an antihomeless initiative per se. The high-blown, romanticized rhetoric of the protesters acts as a foil to Jordan’s unblinkered view of the streets. After one of the many sleep-outs, Jordan announced: “if [the protesting clergy] think this mayor will allow trespassing, obstructing, assault, intimidation, aggressive panhandling, selling drugs from shopping carts, and other crimes to be committed under the guise of homelessness, they are very much mistaken.”

Naturally, homeless advocates and civil liberties lawyers turned to the courts. In March 1994, Matrix survived the first round of a legal challenge by the Coalition on Homelessness, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the ACLU, who sought to enjoin the enforcement of camping and lodging ordinances against the homeless. In refusing the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, federal District Judge D. Lowell Jensen declined to immunize the homeless from criminal laws. He rejected the argument that homelessness is an involuntary “status” whose attributes, such as sleeping in public, cannot be penalized. To accept that claim, said Jensen, would be “to deny the efficacy of acts of social intervention to change the condition of those currently homeless.”

The four plaintiffs named in the class-action suit themselves belied their lawyers’ claim that San Francisco offered the homeless no alternative to the streets. One plaintiff had turned down an offer of housing from his daughter, as well as a specially discounted SRO in a well-run city program. He also refuses shelters, saying, “These people that you’re laying next to—they’re not saints. They’re all homeless.” Two other plaintiffs actually had a place to live.

The results of Matrix’s law enforcement component suggest that a city can successfully rededicate its police to maintaining public order. But the social-service outreach component holds some gloomier lessons for homelessness policy. The city’s efforts to place people in shelter and housing have proved disappointing. In the first two months of Matrix’s Night Shelter Referral Program, police and outreach teams offered homeless men 3,820 vouchers for a church shelter. (There is also a women’s program.) Less than half accepted the vouchers, and only 678 actually used them.

More telling has been the disappointing result of San Francisco’s attempt to link welfare subsidies with housing. San Francisco offers the most generous General Assistance (GA) grant in the state—a $345 per month payment intended to keep poor people from having to live on the streets. But of the 15,000 GA recipients, 3,000 claim they are homeless. Moreover, 65 to 70 percent of people in emergency shelters receive welfare or disability payments that would be adequate to pay rent. (The rest are illegal aliens.) As for those living on the streets, 60 percent acknowledge receiving benefits which could be applied to housing—though the actual number receiving benefits is undoubtedly higher. The city, state, and federal governments are therefore paying twice for this homeless welfare population—once in the form of a GA, AFDC, or Supplemental Security Income check, and again in the form of emergency shelters and services.

To remedy this problem, San Francisco began a voluntary program in which GA recipients can turn over their check to a nonprofit group, which arranges for a discounted room in an SRO. The recipient receives the remainder of his check, approximately $65, in cash. Only seven hundred GA recipients—less than one in four of the beneficiaries claiming homelessness—have enrolled.

Expanding participation in this program has been a major objective of Matrix. From October 1993 to mid-June 1994, Matrix workers approached some three thousand people and succeeded in getting 771 to listen to their pitch for the SRO payments plan. (The others were either totally unresponsive or in need of immediate detoxification or emergency mental health care.) Merely for agreeing to think about the program, a street person is immediately given free lodgings in a designated hotel until his next benefit check arrives. Of the 771 people referred to the hotel, 555 checked in. Of those, only 160 followed through and secured permanent housing; not all of those have remained housed. The others “had trouble making it work,” according to one outreach worker, politely referring to the various social pathologies that interfere with maintaining tenancy.

These figures render moot the perennial debate in San Francisco over whether the city is providing enough beds for the homeless. Though advocates claim that 14,000 people a month are turned away from local shelters for lack of space, a local TV station, KRON, investigated the advocates’ numbers and discovered that in fact some 115 people are turned away from city shelters nightly. Yet there are an additional thousand SRO rooms available through the GA payment program that go empty each night for lack of takers.

The unredeemed shelter vouchers and empty SRO beds cause a considerable problem for the advocates. Walter Park, the housing activist responsible for the 14,000-a-month turn-away figure, claims that the money remaining after rent is deducted under the program is not enough to live on. But program participants themselves give the lie to that allegation. Brian Russell, a young SRO occupant, told KRON that “I get all my needs taken care of “ through the program. According to one street dweller, “you can eat all day long” in San Francisco’s many feeding programs. GA recipients also receive up to $105 in food stamps and get free medical and dental care.

Advocates’ usual explanation for the vacant housing is that it is substandard. Paul Boden, head of the Coalition on Homelessness and San Francisco’s most vociferous homeless activist, claims that if the city enforced its building codes, no one would live on the streets. Yet the city does in fact enforce its codes for SROs in the GA program—inspecting them monthly, rather than once every three years, as is normal for other hotels. A typical room in the program is clean and contains adequate furniture, a wash basin, and carpeting. In addition, the nonprofit organizer of the program places ombudsmen on each site to mediate tenant disputes.

The main problem with Boden’s argument, however, is its assumption that people have a right to live in the streets if they are dissatisfied with their housing. Though the causes of homelessness are many and include economic as well as social factors, homelessness on today’s scale could not have occurred without the sea-change in attitudes that made it possible to live on the streets without stigma or interference. As outreach workers across the country are discovering, given the choice between a treatment program or run-down SRO on the one hand and the street on the other, many addicts and winos prefer the street, where they can hang out and hustle for change.

Providing more housing, drug treatment, and mental health care will be unavailing unless society no longer allows the use of those resources to be optional. Welfare benefits should therefore be conditioned on production of a rent receipt. Even in San Francisco, however, such a requirement is hotly contested. Though some of Jordan’s most influential advisors advocate making the SRO payments plan mandatory, others in his administration argue that there are not yet enough rooms available that are up to code. Resistance is even stronger outside City Hall. The nonprofit organization that is Jordan’s partner in the SRO program but otherwise his ideological foe argues that making its own program mandatory would violate civil liberties. But the momentum of reform seems strong enough that such objections will eventually lose their force.

New York City offers higher Home Relief benefits (the equivalent of General Assistance) to those with proof of rent payment—$352 a month, versus $201 for those who cannot verify rent. Surely New York—and all cities—would do better to tie the full amount of their welfare grants to rent.

Funding additional housing and services is in many cases irrelevant to achieving greater civility in the streets. Matrix, though it has placed few people in permanent housing, has made an enormous difference in San Francisco, suggesting that merely enforcing long-standing norms of public conduct may be far more effective in reducing disorder than any number of social programs. Additional spending on unproven programs should not be a precondition to law enforcement, though unfortunately judicial decisions in Miami and Santa Ana have mandated just such a quid pro quo.

The one service that many street people unequivocally need is the service that receives the least attention: long-term mental health care. San Francisco’s psychiatric emergency room is overflowing. Though the law permits a 72-hour hold for people deemed a danger to themselves or others, hospital workers try to get patients out sooner in order to free up beds. Jim Buick of the Department of Social Services describes a situation that is being replicated in cities across the nation: “People go in absolutely nuts, get medicated, and are put out on the street again.” Many soon return, and the cycle continues.

The Clinton administration would have profited by studying San Francisco before it announced its record homelessness spending program earlier this year. The administration proposes spending $2.2 billion on housing and services in 1995—double the 1993 level and more than four times that of 1987—notwithstanding that, as Clinton himself acknowledged, “these [earlier] responses do not appear to have substantially reduced the number of people with no place to call home.” Indeed, some drug and alcohol treatment providers have concluded that they are merely “enabling” self-destructive behavior. The more humane and comprehensive a treatment program is, the more it insulates the “client” from the consequences of his conduct—consequences that once served as a powerful deterrent.

In San Francisco, Mayor Jordan’s reform efforts continue apace. In November 1993, a ballot measure requiring fingerprinting and a 15-day waiting period for GA benefits won 62 percent of the vote, drawing strong support in minority neighborhoods. Previously, a consent decree required the city to start providing GA benefits on the day of request to anyone who declared an intention to become a resident. Not surprisingly, this requirement had acted as a powerful magnet. The ballot initiative also increased the penalty for violations of GA rules from a 15- to a 30-day suspension of benefits. In six months, the fingerprinting program saved $250,000 to $300,000; 160 people who refused to be fingerprinted lost their GA benefits.

In June 1994, voters ignored the opposition of the Board of Supervisors and passed a Jordan-sponsored initiative to outlaw panhandling within a thirty-foot radius of ATMs. Any non-bank users who linger more than one minute inside the thirty-foot zone face jail time and a fine of up to $100.

San Francisco is both a symbol of the past and the wave of the future. Pursuing freedom, it got chaos. It is now rediscovering that liberty consists not in overturning social rules but in mutual adherence to them. In time, more and more cities will reach that inescapable conclusion.

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