“No” is an omnipresent word in the life of a homeless person.
“No, you can’t wait a few days to pay rent.” “No, you can’t stay here after eviction.” “No, you can’t have a consistent place to stay, a decent meal, or spare change.”
And now, the city of San Francisco may find a new way to say “no”: “No, you can’t stay in parks or plazas at night.”
City Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed legislation to close down San Francisco’s parks and plazas between the hours of midnight and 5am. If passed, the law would primarily impact the city’s 6,436 homeless people, many of whom find respite in the parks at night.
Sleeping in parks is already prohibited, but that regulation is not strictly enforced. If Wiener’s proposal is ultimately enacted, it could refocus efforts on sweeping homeless people out of parks and give police another tool to crack down on their presence.
It could prove problematic for a number of reasons.
First, it contributes to the criminalization of homelessness that can keep people trapped in a malevolent cycle. Parks can be some of the safest areas for homeless people living on the street to sleep. Making it illegal won’t change that fact, but it will result in the city’s neediest residents being forced to pay fines upwards of $187, simply because they have nowhere better to sleep.
Second, it has a disproportionate impact on the LGBT community. One out of every three homeless persons in San Francisco identifies as LGBT, and they face elevated risks of robbery and assault. According to Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness (COH), many homeless LGBT individuals currently find refuge in Golden Gate Park and other out-of-the-way spots.
Third, it undermines the notion of public spaces that are available for anyone to use. The COH, which is organizing opposition, notes, “Our parks are some of the last available public spaces” in the city.
For his part, Wiener denies that the proposal is aimed at ridding parks of homeless people. “We’ve had an epidemic of vandalism in our parks and it’s getting worse,” he told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, arguing that his goal was to prevent graffiti and other damage to facilities.
Earlier this year, the city and county of San Francisco convened an oversight panel to review the city’s homelessness policies, particularly the prohibition on sleeping in parks. Among its findings was that “The current system of issuing citations for nighttime sleeping and camping in the Park is not effective in reducing the current number of park dwellers.” In other words, criminalizing homelessness isn’t making homeless people go away, it’s just making their lives more difficult.
Wiener’s proposal will be voted on during the Board of Supervisors’ October 29th meeting. According to Friedenbach, four supervisors are already opposed to the plan, meaning advocates will need two of the remaining three swing votes in order to defeat the measure.