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The Myth of Criminalizing Homelessness

May 1, 2019
Tony Montoya - SFPOA President

Homelessness is not a new problem for our Department, and it is certainly not a new problem for the residents of San Francisco. However, the expectations of how police officers conduct ourselves managing our homelessness epidemic has evolved over time. The expectations have gotten much more demanding. And they’ve become unnecessarily complicated because of the political agenda of a few.

Recently our city, and most major cities in the country, have seen a surge in homelessness. More people are sleeping on the streets, in encampments, and in their cars. It’s a crisis that every San Franciscan would like solved.

Hardworking families have been priced out of our city due to the skyrocketing cost of housing. Some are literally a paycheck away from homelessness. Police officers, fire fighters, construction workers and other public servants know this challenge too.

At the same time, the epidemic of substance abuse is exploding in all corners of our city. Opiates, heroin and methamphetamine are taking the lives of addicts and slowly killing the soul of some of our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there are those who purposefully choose to conflate homelessness and drug abuse; and its harming our entire city.

We’ve had the dubious distinction of leading our nation’s largest cities in property crimes per capita. And while we saw a small dip in property crimes in 2018 (58,817), that is because we came off of a record high number of property crimes in 2017 (60,993). In fact, over the last five years, 2018 saw more property crime than every other year except for one, 2015 (the year after Prop 47 passed).

Police officers who work the streets can tell you confidently that one of the driving forces behind this crime surge is the drug epidemic. It’s simple. Drug abusers are ripping people off to pay for their habits. There’s no question about it. Then, we are failing to prosecute and punish those repeat offenders who are committing these crimes. The number of crime victims explodes, while the feeling of security plummets.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you or has not spent a day trying to assist a homeless veteran in need, delivered a dose of Narcan or had to chase down a thief who has just broken into a car to make their next score.

Some in our community use the homeless as political shields to prevent SFPD and the City from addressing this crime epidemic. They’re in the way and hurting us all. The moment we talk about cracking down on those who are preying on our neighborhoods, including homeless residents, they shout, “you’re criminalizing the homeless!” That’s simply not true.

Likewise, some are absolutely opposed to any solution that requires any personal sacrifice on their part. Frankly, that doesn’t fly either. We are all in this together.

Here are the facts. San Francisco police officers proactively reach out to homeless individuals every single day. Often times, we are the first face they see that offers them shelter; a counselor; referral to a drug treatment program; mental health services; medical services and/or medical attention. The officers who work our Healthy Streets Operation Center respond to approximately 240 calls a day. That’s a call every 6 minutes. These officers volunteer for this assignment and agree to go through extra training, like safely managing mental health crisis situations and administering Narcan, on a continual basis.

San Francisco Police Officers are doing our part to serve with compassion while trying to protect the innocent from criminals. However, we all have a part to play and we are only as good as the resources we can offer.

That means we need funding. We need more clinicians and more outreach workers. We need drug treatment options that work. We need to hold law breakers accountable for their crimes and offer them a chance at redemption. And, yes, we need more shelter beds and housing solutions.

It’s a simple numbers game. We cannot put a roof over someone’s head if they have no place to go. And if we want them to stay off the street, that roof has to come with services under it. Most workable solutions require all parties to get a little uncomfortable. It’s that time for all of us to stretch past our comfort zones.