In San Francisco, 64,713 Is A Beautiful Number
November 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — From January, 2011 through October, 2015 the San Francisco traffic court division which handles quality of life citations had amassed nearly 65,000 outstanding warrants for things like urinating outside, open container of alcohol in public or sleeping in public parks.
It’s an odd name for a type of citation: “Quality of Life.” When you feel thirsty for a nice cold glass of lager, you might head for the ‘fridge, pop one open and enjoy that icy, sparkling goodness as you drain your glass.
What if you have no home and want to do it but can’t afford to go to a bar? Or maybe, since you also have no bathroom, your appearance and aroma make you somewhat un-presentable in fine establishments serving your favorite beverage. In that case, you are enjoying your beverage al fresco, and could wind-up in an unpleasant encounter with the police.
What many people enjoy in the comfort of their home amounts to a criminal infraction when done outdoors. Police spend plenty of time issuing citations for these activities and, to their dismay, the courts have thrown-in the towel.
San Francisco is only number 14 on the list of most populated cities in the U.S. The homeless problem is much the same as other cities. Most people were already living there when they became homeless; some came for jobs or acceptance in the gay community. San Francisco doesn’t really have a whole lot of services to help the homeless. There are few bathrooms. A shower is really only available if you managed to get a bed in a shelter, which is not easy.
No, people don’t like to see others defecating in the streets or sleeping it off on benches. So the cops get called. It’s not only the homeless who engage in this activity. Late at night, bar patrons who don’t like lines or having to get the key from a bartender (common because some folks like to shoot up their drugs in bar bathrooms) pee outside; or vomit; or both.
Chances are most of these tickets are issued to people without a home and whom the cops, in many cases, cannot adequately identify because the individual has no I.D. Perhaps because the cops took his stuff, or some other thief made off with it. Sometimes the individual is too mentally ill to really identify themselves or respond appropriately, and police are not going to bother trying too hard.
This has to be incredibly frustrating to those good cops who are, after all, people too. To witness and engage with this every day has to have an effect on you, especially if you are smart enough to realize that as a cop you can only do so much. Moving people from one place to another does not get at the root of the problem.
Who, living on the street, has $200 to pay a drinking or urinating in public ticket? What about when it reaches $500 for failure to pay it on time? Nobody. It’s an exercise in absurdity and futility that has gone on too long.
Martin Halloran, head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association and ardent critic of anything that annoys him, has a one sided view of the issue:
It’s sending a message that there is no accountability for what you have done, and the laws on the books can be violated with no repercussions. I don’t think it’s what the public wants.
Halloran doesn’t offer an alternative. Currently in California there is a push to lessen burdens on the poor caused by laws which unfairly target low income people. Recently there was a ticket amnesty program and the courts have largely dropped their pay-to-play requirements so people can fight a traffic ticket without paying the fine upfront. When you have that many outstanding warrants which will never be paid, the sensible thing is to unburden the court from dealing with it.
There are dedicated homeless advocates in San Francisco. But as the real estate prices rise and the population becomes wealthier, lower income folks are pushed out of the city or into homelessness, and the apathy of those who can afford to live there increases. Those who were never in the working class or living from paycheck to paycheck can’t understand how that could happen to anyone unless it was somehow their own fault. These people are not interested in being part of the solution.
Judge Hite did the right thing, preserving the courts resources for more serious criminal activity. Mayor Ed Lee, who criticized the action, is going to have to realize that he and the rich people he represents can’t make the struggle of the poor to survive illegal and subject to fines. They are also going to have to realize the city doesn’t belong to them just because they’re rich.