Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is the Sit/Lie Law Really Care Not Cash, Part II?

Now that Gavin Newsom’s run for lieutenant governor is official, the issues that will define his final months as mayor and carry over into his possible new role have come into focus. During his April 7, 2010, visit to the club, he referenced several topics that have since gained significant attention in the city.

Gavin Newsom catapulted himself to the public awareness beyond San Francisco in 2004 when he granted same-sex couples marriage licenses at the beginning of his term as mayor, but it was his work as a city supervisor and his stance on a far more alternative lifestyle that proved more controversial: homelessness.

“You think gay marriage was controversial?” Newsom asked Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy at the April Club program. “They were burning my body, literally, in effigy in San Francisco. I had never had more security in my life than my inaugural for mayor in 2004 because of all the death threats associated with my work on homelessness as a supervisor.”

Now, as he introduces more tools such as the hotly contested sit/lie ordinance to combat the street population and panhandling – backed by SFPD Chief George Gascon but seemingly few others – the debate has become more complex, mainly by identifying those who are creating the need for such a legislative tool in the first place.

“Our panhandling problem is not a homeless problem,” Newsom said. “It’s a panhandling problem; it’s a behavior problem. It’s a poverty problem; 156 people, 75 locations, the most chronic panhandlers – two-thirds of them are not homeless, and the majority are not from San Francisco.”

A major argument in favor of the law is that it would give police officers a tool to combat the true troublemakers – panhandlers, drug users and those harassing residents – in places such as the beleaguered Haight-Ashbury district and downtown.

However, many on the streets do not fit into that category. Those most vociferously upset about the proposed sit/lie law have been those (and advocates of those) who feel they are being targeted: sex workers, day laborers waiting for work and the homeless. A major argument against the ordinance is that, rather than punishing those who are truly causing trouble, it deems many as breaking the law. Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The New York Times last month that the law “causes non-criminals to be conducting criminal behavior.”

It also opens up the question of where those who are targeted in this law will congregate. The city has openly struggled with out-of-control encampments and prolific drug use in Golden Gate Park.

Though the ordinance has yet to elicit death threats (that we are aware of, at least), it was not adopted by the Board of Supervisors and was also turned over by the Democratic County Central Committee, so it’s up to Newsom to get it to the voters on the November ballot, much as he did with his Care Not Cash program, and see what tools we are left with as he leaves his mayoral post.

With San Francisco’s aid programs bursting at the seams from an increasing population in need of social services and an ever-dwindling General Fund, Newsom devised a way in 2002 with the Care Not Cash program to address it without throwing more money at the problem. The program was supported by voters and is credited with a 30-percent decrease in the street population by reducing the cash amount given and instead offering food and housing. Not all were happy with the program, such as fellow supervisor Angela Alioto, who slammed the program for offering subpar services that were not sufficient to address core issues such as mental instability.

Voters, again, will likely have the last word on Sit/Lie.

–By Heather Mack


Dinah Menil said...

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