Prohibiting Tents on Public Sidewalks
Amends the Police Code to prohibit tents on public sidewalks and provides parameters for removing tent encampments within 24 hours, provided occupants can be offered housing, shelter or homeless services.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition Q would amend the San Francisco Police Code to prohibit tent encampments on public sidewalks.
Under this measure, the city would be authorized to clear people camped on public sidewalks, provided they are served with at least 24 hours’ advance notice and offered alternative housing or shelter and homeless services. “Housing” is defined as placement in a Navigation Center or another housing option provided by the city or a nonprofit group; “shelter” means a temporary stay in a city homeless shelter; and “homeless services” refers to the city’s Homeward Bound program, which pays for transportation to other cities where family and friends can offer housing and support. The Department of Public Health, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Department of Public Works would enforce this measure. Because it amends the Police Code, it would also be enforceable by the San Francisco Police Department. Under the terms of this measure, if the city could not offer the occupants of an encampment housing or shelter, the city could not clear the encampment.
The measure would require written notice to be served in person and to be posted 24 hours in advance of any action to clear encampments. The notice would alert occupants that the encampment is scheduled to be removed; would advise them on housing, shelter and homeless services available; and would provide the address and hours of the location where personal property would be stored free of charge for 90 days before being disposed.
A two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors could amend Prop. Q, but only to further the measure’s purposes.
San Francisco’s homeless population is estimated at about 6,800, with approximately 3,500 currently living on the streets. While the number of homeless people in San Francisco has held relatively steady,1 tent encampments have become more visible as the city has undergone a boom in development that has brought residents, businesses and homeless people into closer contact in many neighborhoods.
The city has increased its spending on homeless services from $157 million in 2011 to $241 million in 2016.2 In early 2016, the mayor restructured the administration of homelessness programs, creating a new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to serve as a central coordinating organization. Charged with reducing homelessness, the department is responsible for implementing a new “navigation system” that builds off the success of the city’s Navigation Center pilot program. (See the Prop. J “Backstory” section for more details.) The department also strives to create exits from homelessness, which includes developing additional supportive housing. San Francisco is home to many “housing first” programs, which prioritize stable housing as an individual’s primary need, under the premise that other issues (such as mental illness, drug addiction or unemployment) can be better addressed once people are housed. Over the past 12 years, the city has created almost 4,000 new units of supportive housing for the homeless.3
Earlier this year, the mayor announced that the city intends to spend $1 billion over four years to provide solutions to homelessness. San Francisco has 23 so-called quality-of-life laws on the books, including measures that prohibit encampments in parks and outlaw sitting and lying on the sidewalk during certain hours. Critics argue that these laws criminalize homelessness, waste city resources and simply move the street population from one location to another. A report by the City Budget Analyst earlier this year corroborated this position, calculating the enforcement cost to the city at over $20 million and confirming that these laws have not reduced the number of people living on the streets.4 The U.S. Department of Justice ruled against quality-of-life laws in the last year, striking down a law in Boise, Idaho, that prohibited sleeping and camping in public on the grounds that criminalizing a life-sustaining activity violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Prop. Q would require that the city offer housing or shelter and services to occupants before clearing encampments, but the city currently has only 35 shelter beds for every 100 people sleeping on the streets. The city is working on creating six more Navigation Centers in the next two years (some will be conversions of existing shelters), which will provide hundreds more beds.
Prop. Q was submitted for the ballot by four city supervisors. It could have been passed legislatively and does not need to be on the ballot. It requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
Passing this measure would allow voters to send a message to city leaders that sidewalk encampments should not be allowed to persist in San Francisco.
This measure could address a gap in current law. Existing police and health regulations are vague with regard to encampments on city streets. By explicitly making tents on public sidewalks illegal, the voters could give the city greater license to remove these encampments when necessary for public health and safety.
This measure is potentially misleading to voters. The waiting list for shelter beds in San Francisco is currently 700 people long. In reality, it takes three days to pass a required tuberculosis screening in order to qualify for entry into a city shelter, and it generally takes weeks longer to be placed in a shelter. Without the ability to offer housing or shelter within 24 hours, the city could probably not enforce this law. This measure could raise public frustration by giving voters the sense that they will see progress, when they are not likely to.
The city’s current policy is to move the homeless street population into housing and shelter as quickly as these spaces become available, and San Francisco has just created a new department to coordinate getting people off the streets in the most effective way possible. By preempting departmental strategy and instituting a policy that could only be changed by another ballot vote, this measure could limit the department’s effectiveness.
This measure could have unintended consequences. For example, if some shelter beds are left empty in order to offer space for those in encampments, it could reduce the number of available beds. And by separating people from their seized belongings (which might include medications), it could also compromise the mental health of the street population.
Decisions about how to engage with the city’s homeless population ought to be left to the teams of health and social workers who are trained to evaluate the complex needs of people experiencing homelessness. These front-line responders need flexibility in order to match people in crisis with the right housing intervention, as opposed to Prop. Q’s one-size-fits-all approach.
Prop. Q would mandate that the same city staff working to build trust and create pathways out of homelessness would be the ones to clear people’s homes and belongings. This could damage the long-term effort to get members of the street population into stable care and permanent housing.
This measure does not need to be on the ballot, as the Police Code can and should be amended legislatively. If this law is approved at the ballot, it would take another ballot measure to amend it, should there be unintended consequences.
5 It feels deeply wrong that a city with such wealth and pride in social progressivism should fail to address a persistent human tragedy in its streets, year after year. This measure responds to widespread frustration and attempts to create a framework for addressing one of the most visible manifestations of homelessness: tent encampments on public sidewalks. There is little disagreement that tent encampments are hazardous for both their occupants and the residents and businesses nearby, and it must be a priority for the city to help people transition out of these situations.
But this measure does not offer a lasting solution. The city already uses existing law to move people off of public sidewalks when they are creating a health or safety hazard. This measure could actually impinge on the city’s ability to remove an encampment because it requires that housing or shelter be provided (and such shelter is often not available). The measure’s wording does not specify the quality of shelter that must be provided or whether people need to be accommodated for any length of time. Enforcement of Prop. Q could create a circus wheel where people are in shelter for a night, then back out on the street in a new location.
The city has already made providing significantly more housing, shelter and services the priority of its enhanced homelessness policy. And other measures on the ballot this fall could provide additional funding for Navigation Centers and for permanently affordable housing. This measure doesn’t add any new services or funding and could confine the approach of San Francisco’s newly created Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
The SPUR Board is not in favor of allowing sidewalk encampments to persist, but many board members did not believe this measure would provide a real solution. We were not able to reach enough votes to recommend either a “yes” vote or a “no” vote on this measure.
1 San Francisco has been able to limit the growth of homelessness to 3.9 percent, largely by running very effective programs to get people off the streets and into permanently affordable housing. In the last 10 years, national trends — including economic recession, growing inequality, stagnant wages, funding cuts to housing programs, and urban housing shortages — have increased many cities’ homeless populations by 10 to 20 percent.
2 Of this $241 million budget, $140 million goes to supportive housing for previously homeless individuals who are now housed. Because of this, advocates often specify that $100 million is the amount actually going to shelters and services for the currently homeless.