Putting themselves in the shoes – and sleeping quarters – of the homeless who spend their nights in San Francisco parks, a group of some 50 people camped out in Dolores Park Monday night to protest legislation that will create a new curfew at all of the city’s parks.
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed the legislation, which the Board of Supervisors is considering today. The legislation passed through a committee in early October, meaning that today’s vote will be final. Opponents said the legislation unfairly targets the homeless. The “Sleep-In,” was also meant to rally support for homeless services.
“Until we have beds, the grass will still be a place of last resort,” said Tom Temprano, president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, which organized the event. “This is a continuation of an attack on public access to public space, and it is absolutely redundant legislation.”
Temprano’s organization got involved because they see homeless issues as queer issues. Some 30 percent of homeless people identify as LGBT.
Wiener said his legislation was meant as a way to combat vandalism, theft and the destruction of park property - all of which cost the city $1 million a year. While it is already technically illegal to sleep in the city’s parks after their closing time, it is rarely enforced. Moreover closing times vary from park to park. The new legislation creates one consistent closing time, from midnight to 5 a.m. However, it is unclear how it will be enforced.
There are more than 200 parks in San Francisco but only 24 park personnel to patrol them. Having a uniform closing time will enable the department to better schedule employees to patrol them, park officials say.
But homeless and homeless advocates see otherwise.
“We know what’s going to happen,” said Mike Zimt, 47, who has been homeless in San Francisco for nearly three years. “They say this is to target vandals, but they are just going to be kicking out homeless people who need a place to sleep.”
Zimt used to stay in Golden Gate Park but now lives in an RV near Bayview. He said there is plenty of space for tent cities and encampments in parks if only the police would allow such styles of habitation.
“I’m not denying that people could cause problems or that some will use drugs or alcohol,” Zimt said. “But that is an excuse to not let some of us who don’t do any of those things have a place to go when we can’t afford housing.”
Lisa Marie Allatore of the Coalition on Homelessness urged greater collaboration between city agencies and social services to combat the problem.
“This will only displace people into our streets, into our neighborhoods, and create new crises,” she said. “All of us our outraged when our parks are vandalized…it’s an awful thing. This is not the solution.”
Allatore explained how the San Francisco shelters are completely full every night, with only 1,339 beds to serve the homeless population of more than 6,400, according to the latest count from the SF Human Services Agency. Moreover, those shelters come with their own set of problems.
“There is a lot of violence in the shelters and people feel unsafe,” said Allatore. “Parks offer the only refuge for a lot of people.”
It’s not known just how many people sleep in the parks, but of the 6,436 homeless counted, more than half were on the streets without shelter, and the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.
“As you continue to see more and more unaffordable rents, this problem is only going to increase, but it is more of a housing decrease than anything else,” she said. “The city needs to work creatively to figure this out rather than putting a blanket, catch-all law on everyone.”
While the majority of homeless encampments are in Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park was chosen because it is within in Wiener’s jurisdiction.
The Sleep-In situation wasn’t exactly what homeless people experience sleeping in the parks on any given night. People bundled up against the autumn chill with down-filled sleeping bags, drinking donated coffee and snacks from Tartine Bakery. Additionally, the Milk Club had spoken to police lieutenants and park rangers prior to the event, and said they agreed to be lenient with their rules for the night.
Volunteer legal observers attended to ensure nobody set themselves up for trouble by further breaking laws. The strong scent of marijuana wafted through the crowd more than once and a whiskey bottle made the rounds.
The Society of St. Francis, which is located directly across the street from Dolores Park, kept its doors open through the night to allow people attending the Sleep-In to use the restroom, have some coffee or simply warm up.
Brother Paul Joseph, a Franciscan Friar, is also a registered nurse who goes to Golden Gate Park twice a week to administer first aid and offer other small healthcare services to homeless.
“This legislation criminalizes poverty,” Brother Joseph said. “They say it’s not about targeting homeless, but it is.. I said to supervisor Wiener in his office, ‘grass is a lot softer than concrete, but beds are softer than grass.’ What are we doing to get them housing and healthcare and mental health care?”
Brother Paul Joseph said Wiener is planning on going with him to Golden Gate Park on November 21st when he offers care to homeless.
Those in attendance came from all different neighborhoods, representing a variety of organizations like OccupySF, Code Pink and homeless and queer advocacy groups. At least 10 people were from media outlets. A few homeless people were present, but most people had homes and were simply there in solidarity.
“I’m very concerned that if they do this arbitrary closing of the parks, then this is a bad move for a lot of homeless vets,” said Jim Dorenkott, 70, of Veterans for Peace. “Many shelters are unacceptable, and it’s a shame that we have empty units in San Francisco but the city can’t find affordable housing.”
Monalisa Wallace, who sits on the board of the National Organization for Women, said that it was a shame to use city resources to prosecute the city’s poor.
“This is just like the Sit/Lie law, where the same people are going to get ticketed over and over again, and they can’t pay it,” she said, referring to the controversial 2010 law that was many felt targeted homeless people. “It creates a debtor’s prison for the poorest people.”
“It’s really a step in the wrong direction,” echoed Gabriel Medina of the Latino Democratic Club.
The Sleep-In went off without a hitch. Lights were cut at 10 p.m., a ranger rolled by around 1 a.m. but stayed in his car. Most there began snuggling up for the night shortly. Peaceful and quiet, albeit slightly chilly, the event was a bit of a snoozer.