Feb. 16 2011 10:23 AM

Modified illegal-lodging settlement won't change a thing about homelessness

Jan Goldsmith
Photo by David Rolland
One of the reasons CityBeat couldn't support Jan Goldsmith's candidacy for San Diego city attorney in 2008 was his opinion of predecessor Mike Aguirre's decision to settle a case involving the city's sleeping-in-public law. Aguirre essentially gave nine homeless plaintiffs what they wanted— a nighttime ban on cops ticketing people for camping on the sidewalk. We liked the settlement; Goldsmith was against it.

Goldsmith reminded us of his position last week when he and City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer lauded a court-approved modification of the settlement that scraps the nighttime ban on citing homeless people Downtown for “illegal lodging” as long as there are shelter beds available. While the modified settlement eliminates the ban Downtown and incorporates a new set of procedures police officers must follow when a citizen complains of someone camped illegally, there would seem to be no practical effect.

The reason the lawyers for the homeless had such a compelling case in the first place is that people without homes had no choice but to sleep in the public right-of-way; there weren't enough shelter beds to satisfy the demand—not by a long shot. The lawyers argued that ticketing people for taking care of their biological need to sleep was cruel and unusual punishment. Nothing has changed; there still aren't enough beds to go around for people who want them. Therefore, the police still won't be able to issue citations.

That's why our first reaction to Goldsmith and Faulconer's press conference announcing this fantastic new “strategy” to take back the streets and help homeless people was to dismiss it as silly grandstanding. However, something that was mentioned at the press conference has us worried. Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long said that three nonprofit shelter providers would set aside a total of five beds each night for people approached by the police. On Tuesday, he told CityBeat that the department has gotten five shelters to agree to try to set aside a couple of beds apiece and to check availability when an officer calls. Under the new procedures, if a bed is available and the person refuses it, and refuses to move, that person enters the criminal-justice system.

Scott Dreher, a lawyer for the nine homeless plaintiffs, says he was unaware of that agreement, which is mentioned nowhere in the modified settlement and will closely monitor the bed inventory moving forward. The new procedures are mostly positive because they at least endeavor to connect needy people with services. They also require officers to document their complaint-driven encounters with people on the streets. Be assured that CityBeat will inspect this documentation regularly.

The homeless population is a wide spectrum. Goldsmith seems to think the majority are homeless by choice and need to be prodded to accept shelter. Yes, there are obstinate people on the streets who don't want help, but some will accept it from people they trust, and the police department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) does a good job of building that trust. Then there are those who seek shelter and find none because facilities—most of which cater to populations other than single men who aren't veterans, which is the largest group in need—are filled to capacity every night.

If a bed suddenly becomes available and is claimed by someone offered it by the police, fine. But if the city is going to pressure shelter providers to keep a number beds empty just to satisfy Faulconer's condo cronies in East Village, then we have a serious problem.

Long says the majority of people officers encounter refuse shelter when it's offered. But that often has more to do with who's offering—a cop—than with what it is that's being offered. That's why the HOT team is so important. Prosecuting people for sleeping in public only satisfies the people who are complaining—and it satisfies them only temporarily. When homeless people emerge from jail, they're homeless again.

Goldsmith and Faulconer think these new procedures will give the city “extra incentive to provide more beds,” Manolatos says. City officials don't need more incentive to help people get off the street, and shelter providers do as much as they can within space and financial constraints. It doesn't take the threat of financial penalty or incarceration to generate services for the homeless; it takes money, and state and federal funding is in short supply. Instead of trying to ratchet up the criminal prosecution of homeless people, maybe Faulconer, Goldsmith and the folks who complain about the homeless should consider helping to ratchet up government spending and private philanthropy for additional mental-health services and supportive housing.

That—and not these flimsy changes to the court's order—is the only way we're going to do anything about the scourge of street-sleeping.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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