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Compassionate S.F. Turns Cool to Homeless

August 30, 1993|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Every other evening for the last five years, Randy Moore has sat cross-legged atop a grimy subway stairwell on Market Street, begging for change from commuters rushing past.

It's not a pleasant life, but Moore--who murmurs "God bless you" to those who toss coins and those who don't--gets by. "I'm polite, I'm friendly and a lot of people know me now," said Moore, a bushy-bearded man of 42. "I'd rather have a real job, but hey, that's life."

Moore tends to be an upbeat guy, but lately anxiety has colored his mood. On Aug. 1, Mayor Frank Jordan launched a crackdown on street people, giving Moore and San Francisco's 10,000 other homeless the distinct impression they are no longer welcome here.

Since the operation began, police have arrested more than 400 people for crimes ranging from urinating in public to lodging in a city park, panhandling in an aggressive manner or obstructing a sidewalk. The bulk of the violations were misdemeanors, but at least 52 arrests were for felonies, most of them narcotics-related.

Dubbed the Quality of Life Enforcement Program, the crackdown was spurred by complaints from merchants and the belief that offensive behavior by the city's homeless is on the rise. Downtown business groups--convinced that such behavior upsets tourists and prompts locals to spend their shopping dollars at suburban stores--have been clamoring for action.

"Homelessness in and of itself is not a crime, but that lifestyle does have its criminal element, and that is what the mayor is targeting," said Jim Lazarus, Jordan's chief of operations. "These problems are offensive and the mayor has said enough is enough."

Jordan's hard-line approach echoes promises he made in his 1991 mayoral campaign and also mirrors tactics becoming popular in cities across the United States. San Diego, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and many other communities have tried get-tough strategies with the homeless in recent years.

In San Francisco--a city with a reputation for tolerance of different lifestyles and compassion for the dispossessed--the crackdown has triggered shouts of outrage from homeless advocates and civil libertarians.

Critics accuse the mayor of trying to boost his sagging popularity with the business sector by busting street people while doing nothing to address the root causes of homelessness.

Calling Jordan heartless, advocates note that the city's shelters are full most nights, leaving the homeless rousted from parks with nowhere to go. The problem was compounded two weeks ago when Caltrans declared a crime-plagued downtown bus terminal off limits at night, displacing 300 people who had camped there for years.

"Sending cops out to hassle people for sleeping in a park when the people have no alternative is pretty cruel," said Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness, noting that San Francisco has only 1,500 emergency shelter beds for a homeless population almost seven times that number. "It will appease the business types, but once the cops back down we'll be right back where we started."

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California charge that police are guilty of abuses in their enforcement of the crackdown. They say officers have arrested homeless people for acts not forbidden by law and have destroyed clothes and other belongings.

The ACLU also contends that the sweeps are a waste of the city's crime-fighting resources. In addition to the normal beat patrols, between 12 and 18 extra officers a day are diverted to the homeless enforcement program.

"With all the carjackings, assaults and other violent crime going on, I really doubt that taxpayers want the cops going after criminal nappers," said John Crew, director of the ACLU's police practices project.

At a press briefing, Police Chief Tony Ribera denied that officers have seized belongings and said the department's goal was "not to attack the homeless, but to hold people accountable for criminal behavior."

"Is it OK to urinate on the sidewalk?" asked Cmdr. Richard Holder. "If you're sleeping in someone's doorway, is that legal? No, it is not, and we will enforce the law."

Ribera insisted that the crackdown is not a waste of police time, saying he has received hundreds of complaints from San Franciscans "who no longer go downtown to shop or eat because they're scared."

Downtown business owners, although wary of sounding anti-homeless in print, say the arrests have made a difference in shopping areas popular among panhandlers.

"Just the visibility of the police has helped," said Ed Lawson of the Union Square Merchants Assn., noting that homeless people are "frightening and disgusting" to shoppers but also deserve help.

The ACLU said it has been deluged with complaints from homeless people claiming their rights have been violated under the crackdown, and attorneys hope to build a test case to challenge the laws being used. The homeless coalition has sent undercover monitors--some armed with video cameras--into the streets to gather evidence.

At City Hall, Jordan is drafting new laws, one of which would restrict begging near ATM machines and the city's symphony hall. In November, voters will weigh another Jordan proposal that would put new restrictions on homeless and other people seeking general assistance welfare checks.

Jordan, acknowledging the need for more homeless services, is also working on securing additional shelter beds and new public toilets for the streets, Lazarus said.

Times researcher Norma Kaufman contributed to this story.

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