Criminalization Fails to End Homelessness in San Francisco

Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco
Chris Herring, Dilara Yarborough, and Tony Sparks
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California comprises 12 percent of the US population but 22 percent of the country’s population experiencing homelessness.

Antipoverty laws and policing can disproportionately impact the well-being and housing status of people enduring homelessness through three primary mechanisms: antihomelessness ordinances, such as resting in public spaces and vehicles, soliciting money, and sharing food, restrict the life-sustaining activities those experiencing homelessness have little choice but to perform in public; quality of life ordinances, such as those prohibiting “uncivil” behavior such as drinking, smoking in parks, and vending without a license, often punish behavior that would be noncriminal if performed in a private space or home; and the US criminal justice system disadvantages people with low-incomes through mechanisms such as high bail amounts. People experiencing homelessness are more prone to arrest because they tend to reside in neighborhoods that experience higher levels of policing, are more likely to be convicted because of a lack of legal resources, and may face harsher sentences because of a previous record of antihomelessness and quality of life offenses.

California comprises 12 percent of the US population but 22 percent of the country’s population experiencing homelessness. Though San Francisco is widely considered a national leader in responding to homelessness with measures such as supportive housing units, volunteers, and service programs, the city also leads the nation in developing ordinances banning life-sustaining activities, with 23 laws prohibiting sitting, sleeping, standing, and begging—9 more than the average California city.

This 2015 report analyzes the intersection of increasing enforcement of antipoverty laws and mass incarceration and its impact on the population experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. The study focuses on four points of contact in the criminal justice system: interactions with law enforcement, citations, incarceration, and release. The study draws its findings from a citywide survey of 351 San Franciscans experiencing homelessness, interviews with 43 people experiencing homelessness, and interviews and email correspondence with San Francisco agency officials, lawyers, service providers, and police officers, as well as an analysis of city records received through Freedom of Information Act requests. At the time of the study, a team of recently and currently homeless peer researchers conducted interviews following a methodological training, and both peer researchers and the Coalition on Homelessness’s Human Rights Workgroup took part in collaborative data analysis with university sociologists. Finally, peer researchers reflected with interview participants on how their experiences could inform policy implications.

The report reveals how the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco fails to reduce homelessness and outlines how involvement with the criminal justice system can perpetuate and produce homelessness.

Key findings
  • In the past year, 74 percent of respondents reported having interacted with a San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officer.
  • SFPD interventions often did not lead to a connection to human services (such as a shelter bed). Eleven percent of police interactions resulted in referral to services, and nearly 10 times more respondents received a citation following an interaction rather than an informational handout on available services.
  • SFPD intervention often led to forced displacement from public spaces. Interaction with an SFPD officer accounted for 84 percent of respondents’ displacements. Ninety-one percent of displaced respondents reported that the last time they were forced to move, they remained in public spaces, and 31 percent of these participants felt less safe in their new locations.
  • Fifty-nine percent of gender nonconforming participants felt less safe after they were forced to move.
  • Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents received a citation in the past year—43 percent of which were for violating antihomelessness laws, such as those that outlaw resting in public, and 30 percent were for quality of life violations such as those that outlaw drinking or smoking in public.
  • Race affected frequency rates at which respondents were approached, cited, and incarcerated: 81 percent of Black respondents, 77 percent of white participants, 69 percent of Asian participants, and 84 percent of other people of color (a category that included respondents that classified themselves as Latinx, Indigenous, or Multi-racial or “Other”) reported having been approached by the police. Seventy-six percent of Black respondents, 66 percent of white participants, 77 percent of Asian respondents, and 70 percent of other people of color reported receiving a citation. Seventy-four percent of Black respondents, 51 percent of white respondents, 54 percent of Asian respondents, and 53 percent of other people of color reported having been previously incarcerated.
  • Police interactions that result in incarceration can result in people losing their homes. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents reported being arrested and incarcerated at some point in their lives. One-third of respondents reported being housed at the time of their last incarceration, and of this group, 34 percent reported becoming homeless at the time of their release.
Policy Implications
  • Policing and criminalizing homelessness can distract resources and energy from strategies to reduce rates of homelessness. The authors suggest a diverse approach to affordable housing solutions and services can disrupt the cycle of homelessness and incarceration, such as supportive housing, subsidies, and prioritization of public housing for people experiencing homelessness.
  • The authors recommend overturning antihomeless laws that criminalize sitting, resting, and other life-sustaining activities in public spaces and halting punitive enforcement of antihomelessness laws by SFPD, San Francisco Public Works, and San Francisco Recreation and Parks.
  • To create safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness, policymakers can increase options outside of public spaces by increasing access to and quality of temporary shelter, creating legal parking for vehicularly housed people, and encouraging private entities to open their spaces.
  • Implementing debt forgiveness and payment plans for people experiencing homelessness and people with low incomes can prevent criminal justice debt from pushing people into homelessness.