The homelessness industry has pulled off some impressive feats of rebranding over the years—most notably, turning street vagrancy into a consequence of unaffordable housing, rather than of addiction and mental illness. But for sheer audacity, nothing tops the alchemy that homelessness advocates and their government sponsors are currently attempting in San Francisco. The sidewalks of the Haight-Ashbury district have been colonized by aggressive, migratory youths who travel up and down the West Coast panhandling for drug and booze money. Homelessness, Inc. is trying to portray these voluntary vagabonds as the latest victims of inadequate government housing programs, hoping to defeat an ordinance against sitting and lying on public sidewalks that the Haight community has generated.

The outcome of the industry’s rebranding campaign—and of the Haight’s competing effort to restore order—will be known this November, when San Franciscans vote on the proposed sit-lie law. That vote will reveal whether San Francisco is ready to join the many other cities that view civilized public space as essential to urban life.

Four filthy targets of Homelessness, Inc.’s current relabeling effort sprawl across the sidewalk on Haight Street, accosting pedestrians. “Can you spare some change and shit? Will you take me home with you?” Cory, a slender, dark-haired young man from Ventura, California, cockily asks passersby. “Dude, do you have any food?” His two female companions, Zombie and Eeyore, swig from a bottle of pricey Tejava tea and pass a smoke while lying on a blanket surrounded by a fortress of backpacks, bedrolls, and scrawled signs asking for money. Vincent, a fourth “traveler,” as the Haight Street punks call themselves, stares dully into space. All four sport bandannas around their necks—to ward off freight-train exhaust as they pass through tunnels, they explain—as well as biker’s gloves and a large assortment of tattoos and metal hardware. The girls wear necklaces and bracelets of plastic disks and other hip found objects; their baggy tank tops and stockings are stylishly torn.

A petite Asian woman passes the group and smilingly hands Cory the remains of a submarine sandwich. Suddenly, all four are on their feet, tearing at the sub. As Zombie stuffs the bread into her mouth, partly chewed chunks fall back out onto the ground.

Such juvenile hobos see themselves as on a “mission,” though they’re hard-pressed to define it. Sometimes they follow rock bands, and other times more mysterious imperatives, between Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Venice Beach, and San Diego. Some are runaways; some are college dropouts; others are years older. Eeyore says she got kicked out of her Riverside, California, home at 14 because she was “a punk and an asshole.”

Of all the destinations on the “traveler” circuit, the Haight carries a particular attraction to the young panhandlers, thanks to the Summer of Love. Starting in late 1965, waves of teens from across the country began pouring into what was then a ramshackle, blue-collar neighborhood of pastel Victorian houses and low-rent businesses, drawn to the emergent drug culture and its promised liberation from the bourgeois values of self-discipline and hard work. “The time has come to be free,” a local flyer proclaimed. “Be FREE. Do your thing. Be what you are. Do it. Now.” This insipid philosophy was eventually co-opted by consumer capitalism, while the hippie ethos gave way to punk, daisy chains to piercing, acid to meth, and mindless utopianism to mindless nihilism. In the Haight itself, national chain stores like American Apparel, McDonald’s, and Ben & Jerry’s found a place next to the head shops, tie-dye boutiques, and check-cashing outlets. But the kids kept coming.

The defining characteristic of all these “travelers” seems to be an acute sense of entitlement. “If you can afford this shit on Haight Street, then goddamn, you can probably afford to kick down $20 [to a panhandler] and it won’t fucking hurt your wallet,” a smooth-faced blond boy from Spartanburg, South Carolina, defiantly tells the camera in The Haight Street Kids, a documentary by Stanford University’s art department. I ask the group on the blanket: Why should people give you money? “They got a dollar and I don’t,” Cory replies. Why don’t you work? “We do work,” retorts Eeyore. “I carry around this heavy backpack. We wake up at 7 AM and work all day. It’s hard work.” She’s referring to begging and drinking. She adds judiciously: “Okay, my liver hates me, but I like the idea of street performance. We’re trying to get a dollar for beer.” More specifically, they’re aiming for two Millers and a Colt 45 at the moment, explains Zombie. Aren’t you embarrassed to be begging? “I’m not begging, I’m just asking for money,” Cory says, seemingly convinced of the difference. How much do you make? “In San Francisco, you don’t get much—maybe $30 to $40 a day,” says Eeyore. “When you’re traveling, you can make about $100 on freeway off-ramps.”

What more conventional people consider “employment” is, in the eyes of the street punk, something conferred gratuitously. “People see you, they’re like, ‘Get a job.’ You’re like, ‘Okay, pay me, hire me. You know, do something!’ ” a boy complains on a promotional video made by Larkin Street Youth Services, a local organization that serves “homeless” youth. Meantime, welfare will do just fine. A strapping young redhead trudging down Haight Street with a bedroll and a large backpack explains the convenience of his electronic food-stamp card, which he can use to pick up his benefits wherever he happens to be—whether in Eugene, Oregon, where he started his freight-train route last Halloween, or in California.

Over the last several years, the Haight’s vagrant population has grown more territorial and violent, residents and merchants say. Pit bulls are a frequent fashion accessory, threatening and sometimes injuring passersby. In July, two pit bulls bred by the residents of an encampment in nearby Golden Gate Park tore into three pedestrians, biting a 71-year-old woman to the bone and wounding her two companions. In October 2009, one of three punks sitting on a blanket with dogs spat on a 14-month-old baby when its mother rejected their demand for change. The vagrants carry knives and Mace; people who ask them to move risk getting jumped.

Merchants trying to clean up feces and urine left by the alcohol-besotted youth are sometimes harassed and attacked. Kent Uyehara, the proprietor of a skateboard shop in the Haight, has gotten into fistfights with vagrants when he tells them that they can’t sell marijuana in front of his store. “They start it, but if they say ‘F you,’ we’re going to say ‘F you’ back,” he says matter-of-factly. Business owners, already struggling to stay afloat in the weak economy, worry that shoppers will avoid their stores or the entire neighborhood, rather than navigate around packs of drunken youths on the sidewalk.

Illustration by Arnold Roth

By late 2009, community frustration with the gutter punks’ rising aggressiveness had led the Haight’s police captain, Teri Barrett, to propose a new law that would ban sitting or lying on city sidewalks from 7 AM to 11 PM. Under current policies, an officer can ask someone sprawled across a sidewalk to move only if he observes a pedestrian being substantially obstructed and if that pedestrian will sign a complaint and testify in court against the sidewalk sprawler. Few pedestrians are willing to do so; as for the merchants themselves, they fear retaliation. After the manager of a boutique selling “Goth” clothing installed outdoor cameras and called the police about the vagrants outside her store, the vagrants threw live birds, their wings flapping wildly, in a cashier’s face.

Barrett’s proposed ordinance against sidewalk colonization would remove the current requirement of a civilian victim and allow a police officer to take action on his own. The officer would first have to warn someone sitting or lying on a sidewalk that he was violating the law; only if that person refused to move could the officer issue a citation against him.

Both Mayor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco’s new police chief have endorsed the proposed law, later named “Civil Sidewalks.” It is similar to ordinances adopted in Seattle, Berkeley, Portland, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto, all cities with impeccable “progressive” credentials. The police have issued few citations under those laws; as in San Francisco, their main purpose is to give officers the authority to ask squatters to move along and to prevent the hostile occupation of public space.

The homelessness industry instantly mobilized against the Civil Sidewalks law. Its first tactic was to assimilate the gutter punks into the “homelessness” paradigm, so that they could be slotted into the industry’s road-tested narrative about the casualties of a heartless free-market economy. “Homelessness, at its core, is an economic issue,” intoned the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco’s most powerful homelessness advocacy group, in a report criticizing the proposed law. “People are homeless because they cannot afford rent.” Even applied to the wizened shopping-cart pushers of the traditional “homeless” population, this simplistic statement is deeply misleading. But applied to the able-bodied Haight vagrants, it is simply ludicrous, entailing a cascading series of misrepresentations regarding the role of choice in youth street culture. The Haight punks may not be able to afford rent, but that is because they choose to do no work and mooch off those who do. Further, they are not looking for housing. They have no intention of settling down in San Francisco or anywhere else. The affordability or unaffordability of rent is thus irrelevant to their condition.

Shoehorning the street kids into the homeless category requires ignoring their own “voices,” ordinarily a big no-no among “progressives” when it comes to official victims of capitalism and other oppressions. They are not homeless, the “travelers” insist, and they look down on those who are. “When you stop traveling and stay on the street, you become a home bum,” Eeyore says. A stringy, middle-aged alcoholic buzzes around Eeyore and her companions’ blanket, offering incoherent sallies. Asked if the older guy is an acquaintance, Cory scoffs, “He’s just some crazy that wandered up,” in between more pitches for food and change.

If the “travelers” feel no affinity for the white winos of the Haight and Golden Gate Park, they keep themselves even farther from the largely black street population of the Tenderloin, a drug-infested downtown neighborhood of single-room-occupancy buildings that is San Francisco’s other major locus of public disorder (see sidebar). “I don’t hang out in the Tenderloin because I don’t feel like smoking crack,” Cory says primly. Such scruples suggest a keen sense of self-preservation, notes Kent Uyehara. “These kids couldn’t handle the Tenderloin,” he says. “The local drug dealers won’t tolerate hippie punks interrupting their operations; they’d get beaten up or shot.”

Trouble in the Tenderloin

Police officers in the Tenderloin are as eager for a sit-lie law as their colleagues in the Haight are. The Tenderloin is the smallest police precinct in the city, but it has the highest number of parolees and sex offenders and the highest rate of violent crime. It’s also right next to Union Square, San Francisco’s central tourist area. Tourists walking through the Tenderloin to its few remaining theaters have been mugged; those waiting for the cable car at the bottom of Powell Street are routinely accosted by panhandlers. The city’s persistent failure to dent the disorder has kept the area, along with the adjacent Market Street Corridor, in thrall to crime and blight for years, as have strict laws protecting single-room-occupancy buildings from acquisition and development. Police officials and local entrepreneurs speak wistfully of the transformation of New York’s Times Square, and they still hope that it could happen here.

Whereas street sitters in the Haight are usually engaged in various forms of consumption, many in the Tenderloin are in sales. Asked how he would use the proposed sit-lie ordinance, Officer Adam Green responds, “I’d ask these ladies to move on,” referring to a group of women sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk. Green’s “ladies” are most likely holding drugs for the dealers milling around a few paces down the block. “It’s a very sophisticated game,” Green explains. “They know it’s harder for us to search women. We try to prevent people from congregating, because that’s when we get our drive-by shootings.” (A few weeks later, an Oakland man wearing body armor was gunned down in the Tenderloin in a cascade of 16 bullets, saved from death only by his foresight in putting on his bulletproof vest before entering the area.) Other sidewalk sitters serve as lookouts against the cops.

Green and his partner, Officer Ed Saenz, recognize some of the dealers waiting for customers down the street from an arrest they made yesterday. “That guy in the blue hat was giving us a lot of lip. It would also be nice if people actually went to jail without being immediately released.”

A second category of Tenderloin sidewalk occupants represents what the Haight kids will become if they continue their “traveling” lifestyle. A middle-aged woman with bright red hair and smeared lipstick, a leopard-skin jacket, green-painted nails, and red-and-black striped stockings is passed out on the sidewalk, behind a miniature pyramid of nine Milk Duds. Saenz radios for an ambulance while Green grabs her ear. “Wake up, Kelly! How much did you drink today?” After prolonged shaking, she rouses herself, grimacing and shaking her head: “Just a little bitty one.” “She’s got caramel tunnel syndrome,” the officers joke, referring to the candy used by alcoholics to prevent their blood sugar from dropping precipitously. Allowed to sit on the sidewalk all day, alcoholics like Kelly often become victims of robbery and assault when they doze off.

A reed-thin black man with a grizzled beard and sore-infested legs barely manages to sit upright on the curb in front of Kelly. He’s far from his usual post at Union Square, the officers note. They had given him a citation a few hours earlier for drinking in public, which the Coalition on Homelessness will make sure is dismissed in court; now his inebriation has progressed even further. A fire truck drives up to take the two drunks to the city’s free detox center; 80 percent of the fire department’s runs are devoted to picking up drunks or providing other emergency services, at huge taxpayer expense. Sometimes the officers themselves provide the rides to the detox center or a hospital. “We’re like paramedics,” observes Green. “C’mon, Joe, your ride’s here,” Saenz says encouragingly. “Give it your best!”

Though the police fervently hope that under the data-driven policing of Chief George Gascón, the Tenderloin will show the same capacity for renewal as Manhattan’s once crime-ridden neighborhoods, parts of San Francisco’s populace seem as indifferent to violent crime as they are to public disorder. In August 2010, a German schoolteacher visiting San Francisco to celebrate her wedding anniversary and 50th birthday was killed in crossfire outside a dance party in the Tenderloin, a block from her hotel. The public reaction to the shooting was strangely muted, probably in part because of political correctness and the sense that the victims in these periodic club shootings are usually other gangbangers. Perhaps, too, such public passivity in the face of crime owes to the city’s lack of a tabloid newspaper; in New York, such grisly events, which were common in the early 1990s, sparked widespread outrage in no small part because papers like the New York Post made them front-page news.

Whatever the reason, a proposed Starbucks or other chain store in a favorite neighborhood seems to provoke more organized indignation among affluent San Franciscans than a random killing. This hierarchy of concern may partly explain why San Francisco’s violent crime rate was higher than that of Los Angeles or New York in 2008.

An unintentionally hilarious letter to the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2010 revealed just why the homelessness-industrial complex is so desperate to claim the Haight infestation for itself: government contracts. “The majority of the youth on the streets and in the park are in the Haight seeking support to address the issues that have led them there,” wrote the executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in criticizing the sit-lie proposal. “Funding to help these youths through outreach, case management, education and employment has been severely cut over the past two years. . . . Rather than rallying in anger, a better use of our time is to focus on helping youths exit the streets so they can find work and housing and become contributing members of the community.” Translation: Homelessness, Inc. wants more money.

Larkin Street’s analysis of why people hang out in the Haight is as wildly inaccurate as the Coalition’s fingering of unaffordable rent. Few, if any, of these vagrants are “in the Haight seeking support to address the issues that have led them there,” unless “support” means money for booze and drugs. To the contrary, the “youth” are there to party, en route to their next way station. As a platinum blonde boozily announces in The Haight Street Kids: “I love this city, love your fucking life.” A tall youth draped around her adds: “It’s awesome for traveling kids to stop in when they need a break.”

Predictably, the offer of services and housing—which San Francisco’s round-the-clock outreach workers constantly put before the Haight Street vagrants—is usually turned down. As for becoming “contributing members of the community,” that’s definitely not on the agenda, either. Asked what he saw for himself in the future, a “traveler” in the Stanford documentary rolls his eyes, smiles nervously, and shakes his head for nearly a minute before replying: “A hot dog, there’s definitely a hot dog in my future.”

But a social-services empire has grown up around the street vagrants; its members’ livelihood depends on a large putative “client” population, even if the clients aren’t interested in their services. Enforcing laws designed to ensure safe and accessible public spaces is the most effective means of changing behavior, which is why the sit-lie law is such a threat to Homelessness, Inc. San Francisco has poured billions of dollars into nonprofit groups and subsidized housing over nearly three decades; the street population perceptibly wanes and becomes less aggressive only during those intermittent periods when the city summons the will to enforce common norms of public behavior.

In March, Santa Cruz’s mayor testified to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s version of a city council) about Santa Cruz’s own sit-lie law. The ordinance had a “major impact on making sidewalks passable,” Mayor Mike Rotkin said, by “sending a message that it was not acceptable to claim turf and live on the sidewalk all day.” After years of ineffectual social-services spending, Santa Cruz’s vagrant youth population started acting more civilly a mere couple of weeks after the ordinance passed. Such results are why San Francisco’s advocates must prevent these instructive experiments in law enforcement from happening in the first place.

The homelessness industry’s second tactic was to demonize Civil Sidewalks supporters as motivated by hatred toward the poor. “This issue makes me sick to my stomach,” the head of the Coalition on Homelessness, Jennifer Friedenbach, told a supervisors’ meeting in May. “It makes me sick because we’re putting into place another law that promotes hatred and that will codify economic profiling. Giving tickets for being destitute is not what a civilized society engages in.” Mary Howe, executive director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, a needle-exchange program in the Haight, testified at the same hearing that it was “disgusting that there was not more compassion where there is not enough affordable housing.”

Needless to say, the sit-lie law says nothing about economic status; what it “profiles” is not wealth but behavior. The Haight Street vagrants colonize the sidewalk all day not because they are poor but because doing so is the essence of their “traveling” lifestyle. And a resident or store owner afflicted by punks threatening passersby in front of his home or business is indifferent to how much money is in their pockets; he’s even indifferent to the constant panhandling. He only wants a passageway open and welcoming to all. “I don’t care if they ask for change,” says Arthur Evans, a self-described former hippie from Greenwich Village who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years. “It’s okay if they loiter and make a bit of noise. But I don’t feel safe walking down the Haight at night any more.”

The statement from the Homeless Youth Alliance’s director about “affordable housing” is the usual non sequitur: the gutter punks are not looking for housing, whether temporary or permanent. Every night, about 100 beds in the city’s shelter system remain vacant, though outreach workers are always trying to get people to use them. As for permanent housing, you’re not going to be able to afford rent at any level if you opt out of working or studying. And while some of the street colonists may come from truly impoverished backgrounds—though such a fact is irrelevant to the validity of the proposed law—others do not. Two blondes in “The Haight Street Interviews,” a YouTube video, explain that they “got to escape the whole private school mentality” by starting to follow punk bands in seventh grade.

Finally, the homelessness advocates pulled out their trump card: associating supporters of the Civil Sidewalks law with “business interests.” San Francisco “progressives” regard businessmen as aliens within the body politic whose main function is to provide an inexhaustible well of funds to transfer to the city’s social-services empire. If it weren’t for vigilant politicians, however, the interlopers would constantly seek to duck this ever-growing civic obligation. “If these corporations pay their fair share,” supervisor John Avalos explained in 2009 when introducing a new business tax, “we can generate millions that will go towards keeping health clinics, youth and senior services, and jobs safe for San Franciscans.” (The contradiction between raising business taxes and keeping jobs safe was lost on Avalos.)

So the sit-lie opponents portrayed the law as the brainchild of the rapacious profit seekers, even though the Haight’s residents were as instrumental in its genesis as local merchants were. “I’ve heard we should pander to business,” a member of the Coalition on Homelessness told the supervisors in May. “To that I say: San Francisco is not a theme park for tourists. If they want a squeaky-clean world, they should go to Six Flags and pay for the privilege.” Tourists who can’t get by someone on the sidewalk, she continued, “need to develop some spine and say ‘excuse me.’ ” (Those on the sidewalk can’t be expected to say “excuse me” for blocking everyone else.)

Such cluelessness about the challenges of creating a business and staying afloat is typical of advocates everywhere, as is the aristocratic assumption that San Franciscans will always enjoy an endless supply of tourist dollars, no matter the street conditions. What makes San Francisco unique is that so many of its elected officials have just as limited an understanding of civil society. And no one embodies this contempt for the private sector more than supervisor Chris Daly, a youthful-looking former activist now representing the Tenderloin.

Daly’s signature blend of pomposity and childishness was on full display in the May hearing on the sit-lie law, during which he condescended to an assistant chief of police, the mayor’s public-safety advisor, a small-business owner, and the Chamber of Commerce. He fulfilled the spirit, if not the letter, of his January pledge to use the f-word at every board meeting, a tradition for which he had already laid ample groundwork during past foulmouthed public tantrums. “You can sugarcoat shit, but that doesn’t make it ice cream,” he said, in reference to the proposed law. But his most distinguishing touch was to see the law as all about himself and his fellow “progressives.” In Daly’s fantasy narrative, the bill’s real purpose was to unseat the board’s progressive bloc by creating a “wedge issue” that would mobilize moderate and conservative voters in the November election. The desire of residents and proprietors across the city for passable, open public spaces, in Daly’s view, was a front orchestrated by the nefarious Chamber of Commerce. Maintaining this story line, for which no shred of evidence exists, required Daly to dismiss the testimony of mothers worried about walking their children to school and of struggling managers who told of losing customers unwilling to navigate the human mess in front of their stores.

The unexpected twists and turns of Daly’s monologues, not to mention their length, may put a listener in mind of a certain obsolete Caribbean dictator. In the middle of his opening harangue against the sit-lie law, he interjected, for no apparent reason: “My name is Chris Daly. I’m a homeless advocate.” Having caught everyone’s attention with this oddly timed piece of information, he went on: “I was elected ten years ago talking about affordable housing and I’m still talking about it. We’re lying if we say that measures like this will get us there. We need radical changes in budget priorities. . . . We need to move money from the sacred cows of fire and police to housing and special needs.”

Leaving aside the eternal irrelevance of “affordable housing” to the Haight gutter punks, the notion that San Francisco has been stiffing welfare spending in favor of fire and police is ludicrous. In the 2009 fiscal year, the city spent $175 million on homelessness, compared with a $442 million police budget. That’s $26,865 in services for each of the city’s 6,514 “homeless” persons, the majority of whom are housed in city-subsidized lodgings, compared with $52 per San Franciscan on police protection. (Including such indirect services for the homeless as paramedic calls and psychiatric services for inmates would bring the per-capita rate much higher.) The rest of San Francisco’s massive social-services spending, including health care and welfare, was nearly $3 billion in 2009, compared with a combined police and fire budget of $720 million. (The fire department could, in any case, be considered part of the city’s service empire, since most of its runs are for non-fire-related emergency services, often for passed-out vagrants.)

The weirdest argument against the sit-lie law marshaled by Daly and his allies at the May supervisors’ meeting was that the new measure was not even necessary, since the police already had the legal authority to move people along who were sitting on the sidewalk. Why the police would go to the trouble of seeking a new ordinance when they could just use an existing one was never explained—nor was the incongruity of the progressives’ arguing for the existence and use of a power that they fiercely oppose.

At issue in the supervisors’ odd claim is the requirement of a civilian complainant under the existing law. Police officials and city attorneys testified that under the current ordinance, judges would not entertain a prosecution unless a civilian victim of sidewalk obstruction had done the unlikely and come forward. (And as Santa Cruz’s mayor had testified in the supervisors’ earlier meeting, quality-of-life laws requiring third-party complainants are “completely ineffective.”) Daly and fellow supervisors David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi, however, hammered city witnesses on the fact that the current sidewalk obstruction law does not explicitly state that a civilian victim and complainant is needed. True, but the courts have inferred that requirement in interpreting the statute—and judicial practice is just as controlling an authority.

The progressives’ obsessive statutory nit-picking deflects attention from certain key but unstated facts. First, the board’s leftists seem not to understand—or else simply reject—the concept of public order. Campos badgered an assistant police chief about his statement that the sit-lie law’s purpose was to “protect neighborhood safety and vitality.” Such an idea apparently flummoxed Campos: “What exactly do you mean by ‘neighborhood vitality’? What conduct hurts it?” he asked. One trip to the Haight should be enough to answer that question. Campos then took up the hairsplitting strategy: “Activities when you are standing up can also hurt ‘neighborhood vitality.’ So what is the conduct you are trying to stop?” The fact that a law does not target all negative behavior does not mean that stopping some negative behavior is illegitimate. San Francisco does not hesitate to ban discrimination against gays just because other groups might independently face discrimination.

Second, the progressives reject Broken Windows theory—the idea that an environment where low-level offenses are pervasive is likely to breed higher-level offenses—notwithstanding the universal experience of law enforcement officials that allowing people to flout public norms and to take over public space all day, often drinking, leads to more serious crimes.

The supervisors voted in June against the sit-lie law eight to three, though the public had backed it by a 71 to 24 percent margin in an earlier 2010 poll. (In the Haight itself, support for the law, though strong, is not unanimous: one merchant has called for a boycott of businesses that endorse the measure, which he sees as the advance wedge of “gentrification.”) The supervisors’ vote reflects both a recent change and longer-term trends in San Francisco’s politics and culture.

Since 2000, San Francisco has held district elections for supervisors, replacing the traditional citywide franchise. It now takes fewer votes and a far smaller campaign chest to get elected; local nonprofit social-services groups and unions man get-out-the-vote drives that easily push their preferred candidates into city hall. The resulting boards have made even their liberal 1990s predecessors look moderate (though those earlier boards were as much a product of Mayor Willie Brown’s vacancy appointments as they were of at-large elections). Developers “bleed money to non-profits of the supervisors’ choosing,” according to the San Francisco Weekly. During budget negotiations in 2009, the board used a barely legal maneuver to restore cut funds to specific social-services groups in their districts, including one that provided a festive “Ladies’ Night” for prostitutes. This action violated the intent of a law that the supervisors fund only government departments, not specific nonprofit grantees, reported the San Francisco Public Press.

The tight alliance between politicians and service providers within Homelessness, Inc. has not gone unnoticed by city residents. At the May hearing on the sit-lie law, a petite young black woman mocked the progressives’ claim that they were “fighting for the [homeless] population.” “You people in the social-service mafia make money off this population,” she retorted, “and then go home to neighborhoods where people are not loitering, puking, and pissing outside your door 24 hours a day. We don’t need you here; we need accountability for low-income residents who go to work and don’t do drugs 24/7.”

But the supervisors’ contempt for the economic engine that makes government social-services spending possible also stems from changes in the city’s political culture that long predate district elections. Hard as it is to believe today, San Francisco once understood that entrepreneurial energy was essential to urban vitality. After World War II, San Francisco aspired to rival Manhattan as a world-class center of finance and commerce, positioning itself as the gateway city to the Pacific Rim. A pro-growth coalition of mayors, downtown business leaders, and unions launched transportation and other development projects to create the conditions for economic opportunity, writes San Francisco State University professor Richard DeLeon in Left Coast City. Voters consistently defeated antidevelopment measures. In the late 1970s, refugees from New York’s blackouts, crime, and budgetary disasters found in Frisco a city that still “knew how,” in William Howard Taft’s phrase.

By the mid-1980s, however, the pro-growth coalition had collapsed. The fatal pressures upon it included the loss of such longtime city fathers as industrialist J. D. Zellerbach and banker Charles Blyth, a backlash against the perceived overbuilding of downtown, and the emergence of a new white-collar population with the affluence to value lifestyle over economic growth, DeLeon observes. The passage in 1986 of the most restrictive antigrowth measure of any big city in the country marked the city’s transformation. Henceforth, San Francisco would be characterized by a progressivism “concerned with consumption more than production [and] residence more than workplace,” writes DeLeon—one that has inured itself to threats of private-sector disinvestment. The city’s political elites also developed a taste for identity politics and useless symbolic gestures, especially regarding foreign policy. Public order and economic viability took a backseat to the rapid expansion of municipal unions and the government-subsidized social-services sector.

Illustration by Arnold Roth

The fate of various sit-lie ordinances over the years limns San Francisco’s political evolution. In 1968, at hippie high tide, a unanimous board of supervisors passed a law banning sitting and lying on city streets and sidewalks. The board had no trouble understanding the Haight-Ashbury Merchants and Improvement Association’s plea that “it’s time that our sidewalks were free to walk again.”

By 1994, however, Mayor Frank Jordan could not get a narrower sit-lie law past the board of supervisors or the voters (the ACLU had long since eviscerated the 1968 ordinance in the courts). Though the city was already spending $50 million on homeless services and $55 million on welfare for able-bodied single adults (many of whom chose to live on the street and spend their generous checks on drugs and booze rather than rent), the supervisors embraced the line that the proposed sit-lie law “criminalized poverty.” Homelessness, Inc. was already a key player in San Francisco politics. After the supervisors rejected the sit-lie law, Jordan placed it on the ballot. In an election year of resurgent leftism that saw the loss of San Francisco’s last Republican supervisor, voters were nevertheless much more narrowly divided on the measure than the board was, rejecting it by barely a 2 percent margin.

Between 1994 and today, little permanent progress has been made in the public discourse regarding civil order. San Francisco seems doomed to repeat a one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to the maintenance of safe and civil streets. Jordan, a former San Francisco police chief, had been elected in 1991 to clean up the city from the chaos tolerated by Mayor Art Agnos, a social worker and well-connected state assemblyman. Jordan crafted thoughtful initiatives that balanced assistance to vagrants with misdemeanor enforcement, an approach he dubbed “Matrix” (see “San Francisco Gets Tough with the Homeless,” Autumn 1994).

The homelessness industry found a ready champion against Jordan in former California assembly speaker Willie Brown, one of the most charismatic and powerful politicians in recent California history. Brown promised that he would end Matrix if elected mayor, and upon taking office in 1996, he proved true to his word. Embracing the advocates’ mantra that homelessness was a housing and welfare problem, Brown vowed to end it within 100 days. Instead, within less than a year, he had declared the problem unsolvable. “When I came into office I assumed that making services available would and could cause a reversal of the situation for most people on the streets,” Brown said. “I was wrong. . . . There are some people who just don’t want to live inside, and there’s nothing you can do with them. They are the hobos of the world. They don’t want help.” As for Homelessness, Inc., Brown said that he would henceforth “ignore” the advocates. “They have their own political agenda,” he observed. “They don’t know what’s going on” in the streets.

Throughout his eight years as mayor, Brown sporadically revived Jordan’s quality-of-life law enforcement strategies, usually sub rosa, when the public clamor against needle-infested parkland or refuse-infested plazas grew too loud. The advocates denounced each short-lived initiative as the product of downtown business interests and lambasted Brown as a traitor. A 1996 effort in the Haight to reduce its vagrant youth population collapsed when the youth turned down the offered housing and jobs and the district attorney decided that he couldn’t be bothered to prosecute the public-order arrests that the police were bringing in.

From the early 1990s to 2002, spending on vagrancy rose 50 percent, with nothing to show for it. Voters in 2002 rated homelessness as the city’s most pressing problem, as they had for years and would continue to do throughout the decade. In another déjà-vu moment, then-supervisor Gavin Newsom, a restaurateur and Brown protégé, resuscitated one of Jordan’s most innovative ideas: requiring single, able-bodied welfare recipients to use part of their welfare check for housing. Newsom took his proposed Care Not Cash program directly to the public, which voted it in by 60 percent in 2002. The usual machinations followed: a judge overturned the law, and the board then passed a rival, less demanding, measure sponsored by Chris Daly.

Newsom’s revenge was to ride Care Not Cash into the mayor’s office, winning the election in 2003 on his support for tough love. In 2004, the California Supreme Court reinstated Care Not Cash; since then, the number of homeless adults collecting cash welfare has dropped 86 percent. Newsom’s reprise of the Jordan playbook continued with a ballot initiative to counter aggressive panhandling (since emasculated by the pro bono defense bar) and, after goading, support for the sit-lie law. Late last year, a Haight activist fighting for the Civil Sidewalks ordinance observed sarcastically to a local TV reporter that there had been more sightings of the late Jerry Garcia in the Haight than of Newsom, who lives on the tony hilltop a few blocks above the besieged street. Soon thereafter, Newsom publicly acknowledged the Haight disorder and embraced the Civil Sidewalks ordinance.

Perhaps the lock of Homelessness, Inc. on San Francisco’s politics will be broken in November, when citizens will vote on the sit-lie law in a referendum. It is auspicious that the current push for civil sidewalks is coming from the Haight, long viewed as the epicenter of San Francisco’s progressive movement. In 1987, antidevelopment radicals there burned down a Thrifty drugstore during construction. Mayor Agnos then refused to meet with Thrifty’s president, a moment that epitomized the city’s indifference to private enterprise and even the rule of law when it conflicted with the higher prerogatives of progressive political correctness. Now a majority of Haight residents are clamoring for surcease from the intimidation and lawlessness that Homelessness, Inc. declares is the price that a city must pay until every last tax dollar is turned over to itself.

Of course, a victory for the Civil Sidewalks law at the ballot box will not end the matter. San Franciscans have been voting for sensible order-maintenance policies for decades, only to see the supervisors and the courts thwart their will. But there are other hopeful signs of a possible sea change in the city’s most counterproductive tendencies. The public defender, unabashedly left-wing on many matters, has put a wide-ranging public-pension-reform measure on the November ballot; a moderate supervisor has sponsored another ballot initiative to eliminate the most egregious transit-union protections. Both measures gleaned a record-breaking number of qualifying signatures, despite the city’s traditional inclination to rubber-stamp the demands of municipal-service unions. However, if Newsom’s current bid for California lieutenant governor is successful, which would allow the supervisors to appoint his replacement, all bets regarding the implementation of the sit-lie law are off.

Not relying on their possible king-making power, the progressives are fighting back against the sit-lie law at the ballot box. Supervisor Mirkarimi, who represents the Haight, has authored an initiative requiring the police department to engage in “community policing”—specifically, foot patrols—in an effort to draw votes from the sit-lie measure. Mirkarimi, who has pushed foot patrols for years as a foil to what he disparagingly calls “L.A.-style policing,” claims that mandating more cops on the beat will resolve whatever disorder problems the Haight may face, thus obviating the need for an allegedly rights-trampling measure like the sit-lie law. If the intention behind Mirkarimi’s measure was not clear enough, board of supervisors president David Chiu has added an amendment to it, holding that if the foot-patrol initiative wins with a larger majority than the sit-lie law, out goes the sit-lie law.

The idea that the supervisors have the expertise to dictate police deployment and strategy is laughable, as police chief George Gascón has said. It is also dangerous, since Mirkarimi’s foot-patrol requirement could interfere with the department’s ability to deploy officers to the city’s highest-crime areas, even as Gascón’s data-driven policing—“L.A.-style policing,” in fact—is just kicking in. But the foot-patrol measure also fails as an alternative to the sit-lie law, since officers walking the beat lack the authority to do anything about the disorder they confront, absent a cooperating victim.

San Francisco’s magical topography has allowed it to indulge in antiurban policies for decades. Even as sector after sector of its economic base has peeled off under the pressure of high taxes, ignorant regulations, and government-inflated housing costs, tourists have kept pumping billions into the city’s coffers. Homelessness, Inc. could disparage these visitors, as well as the workers and entrepreneurs who tried to meet their needs, confident that the bay, the islands, the light, and the city’s unique architecture would keep the tourist tax dollars—$21.5 million a day in 2009—pouring down.

Such self-indulgence is particularly foolish in a recession. But the sit-lie law is about more than business viability, however important such viability is to a city’s lifeblood and energy. It is also about the most basic rules of civilized society, which hold that public spaces should be shared by the public, not monopolized by the disorderly few.

Top Photo: Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


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