Criminalizing the Poor: A San Francisco Value?

In San Francisco, Mayor Newsom is making a bid to redefine what the nation thinks of "San Francisco values." The Mayor of the City by the Bay has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal for someone to sit or lie on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11pm, with offenses leading to misdemeanors and ten days in jail upon a second offense, followed by 30 days in jail after a third offense.

I was once one of those homeless people in San Francisco. Kicked out of my shelter in the early morning, before anything was open. The options were to try to muster the energy, after a night of likely very light sleep, to wander about aimlessly for a few hours, or to sit in a park and hope not to get kicked out. Even job searching locations didn't open until hours after we were sent out onto the streets.

I would often watch the sun rise from a park that was near my shelter. I tried to look like what I assumed a non-homeless person would look like, despite my exhaustion and, well, my homelessness. I always watched who was about, and hoped that I would not be cited or thrown out.

Often I would walk a few more blocks over to City Hall, where I held a volunteer appointed official position, as a teenage adviser to the then Mayor and Board of Supervisors. I would wait for the first city workers to show up, and then would wander about trying to be useful, or debating policies with those crafting legislation about lives like mine.

Mayor Newsom was then a Supervisor, and my homeless teen self and he would often get into policy discussions. We picked up those discussions, years later, after I had worked my way from homelessness to Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Mayor Newsom was a guest speaker, and Harvard thought it would be fun to have me introduce him. By this point society, and Harvard, had come to view me as someone of measure enough to take the stage to introduce the man who now proposes a law that would have criminalized that teenage kid he used to debate with.

I still often find some cause or another to sit on a sidewalk in San Francisco. Now, no longer homeless, and with a fancy education, I would be a lot less likely to be fined under the new law. Had the law been implemented when I was younger and homeless, being cited twice for having nowhere to go would have given me a criminal record. Had San Francisco's increased criminalization of the homeless been implemented earlier, my ability to get through that time and end up in the most privileged school in the world could have been hindered by my sitting in a park, or on a sidewalk, before I had anywhere else to go.

Writing this blog post is a bit of a déjà vu. A few years ago, the Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Journal at Harvard asked that I write about my experience of being homeless in San Francisco, and to partner that story with a legal analysis of a recent case in Los Angeles, where a court found as cruel and unusual punishment a law that made it illegal for the homeless to lie on the streets at night, even when all the shelter beds were full.

As I wrote then, and as we see again now, society can have serious cognitive dissonance around homelessness, with what I termed as "The Myth of Choice." The Myth of Choice is the belief that the homeless should just chose to not be homeless, or to not have homeless problems like having no where to go, and so we criminalize those realities rather than dealing with them through actual solutions.

Criminalizing the inherent experiences of the homeless further tightens the cycles of poverty and makes it even harder to escape such a reality. Just merely being homeless changes how the world views you. I worked with children my entire life. While homeless, if I sat on the steps of a school nearby my shelter the police would be called, as I was seen as a threat. If I were homeless and this ordinance were law, that's one more situation that could have led to my arrest.

The proposals of such laws are often used as political maneuvers. It should be noted that Mayor Newsom first ran for that office while running on a belief that the homeless would spend any cash on drugs and alcohol, rather than laundry or bus fare. Alas, he is again running for a new office, and the existence of the homeless is again being symbolically targeted, rather than dealt with through true solutions like supportive and transitional housing, job training and creation and educational opportunities.

I lucked out when I was on the streets. Those mornings when I fearfully sat in the park, the city had less ability to arrest me for such actions. I escaped poverty without first getting a criminal record for just having nowhere to sit. I was able to get a good education and lead a life of service where I now have platforms, like the Huffington Post, to call attention to what are poor attempts at public policy. Mayor Newsom's proposed Sit/Lie Ordinance is a false attempt at a solution. The City of San Francisco deserves better. All of those who believe in city streets that serve citizens, and also believe that the homeless shouldn't be criminalized just for their existence, should support the efforts of those opposing this ordinance.