Thursday, March 13, 2008

The SF Homeless Issue In a Nutshell

Every once in a while, someone in this town not only picks up the idea of common sense, but runs with it.

That's what former sportswriter CW Nevius has been doing over the past several months in the San Francisco Chronicle on the issue of homelessness. Today's column sums up the situation very well.

How Helping the Homeless Can Hurt Them
by CW Nevius

S.F. Chronicle

When a homeless man named James Allen Hill overdosed and died in the restroom of the San Francisco library last Friday afternoon, it was shocker.

A drug overdose in the public library? Really?

"It was an unfortunate and tragic incident for everyone," said library spokeswoman Marcia Schneider. "Especially for the security staff that handled it."

There will be those who will see Hill's death as a failure of the system, another example of how the city neglects its poorest residents.

That's not the story here. The city did anything but neglect Hill. But his case does show a flaw, all right: Chronic and incorrigible offenders avoid the consequences of their actions - aggressive panhandling, public urinating or drunkenness - often through the help of well-intentioned attorneys for homeless advocates.

And instead of being placed in treatment, the offender goes back on the street and continues his destructive behavior.

Hill is a perfect example. A familiar nuisance in the Haight, Hill slept in a garage doorway near the Panhandle and was a constant, drunken annoyance to residents and police. From Aug. 27 of last year to Jan. 22, Hill was cited at least 15 times by officers, mostly for open alcoholic containers on the street and public drunkenness.

Time and again, those citations were dismissed.

Often cases like Hill's never even make it to court. The district attorney's office says that is because homeless advocate attorneys drag out the process as long as possible, creating a paper bottleneck in the courts with "burden of proof" legal requests. There are so many steps and appeals that any misstep can result in a dismissal, which the DA's office says is why hundreds of "quality of life"' infractions are thrown out.

To illustrate, Assistant District Attorney Paul Henderson went through court records and found six cases in which Hill was represented in court by Homeless Coalition attorneys. In what has become a familiar refrain, those attorneys got three of the cases dismissed before they came to trial.

In the other three active cases, prosecutors had offered to drop the charges if Hill agreed to go into treatment for his alcohol problem, Henderson said.

"In other words, we were saying, we don't want to prosecute him, fine him, or send him to jail, but he's got to go to services. And he's got to show us proof that he's gone," he said.

Attorneys fought citations

The offer was declined as Hill's attorneys fought the citations. They were still fighting them when he died.

"There's a really good chance we could have saved this guy's life," said Dariush Kayhan, the city's homeless coordinator.

Hill is the personification of the city's frustration with chronic offenders. There wasn't any question about Hill's problems. He drank to excess, used heroin, and careened out of control around the neighborhood. At one point Hill was so drunk that a police officer found him peeing on a black-and-white cruiser.

Does this sound like someone who needs help? Not to the advocates, or the high-powered local law firms who volunteer to do pro bono work to keep people like Hill from convictions.

"It's frustrating," Henderson said. "If he had been convicted, he would have been in treatment."

Attorneys who advocate for the homeless insist it is not that simple.

Elisa Della-Piana is an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which often works for the Homeless Coalition and its clients. She wouldn't confirm that Hill was one of her group's clients but said the District Attorney's Office "has never offered a treatment bed or treatment slot to any of our clients."

The distinction here may be what constitutes a "treatment service." In any case, Hill didn't get it.

'An artificial hoop'

One of the primary reasons cases are dismissed is that advocates demand a "traffic court response" to the infractions. That means the arresting officer, who appears at court even though the homeless person generally does not bother, must generate a written narrative of what happened. Henderson sees it as "an artificial hoop" that is designed to muck up the process.

In an appearance before the court this week to try to stop the dismissal of cases, Henderson argued that a narrative isn't needed when the charges are explained in the citation.

"The citation is its own authority," he said. "Every single county in California accepts that, except San Francisco."

In fact, one of Hill's citations was dismissed for "lack of a traffic court response." Here's a guy with at least 15 citations - not to mention any number of times when police stopped him, poured out his booze, and told him to knock it off - and he gets off because of a lack of a written narrative for the arrest.

You will hear a lot about "criminalizing the homeless," in these kinds of cases, but who's really being hurt here? It is annoying to the residents to have a nuisance like Hill in the neighborhood, but even the police don't want to lock him up.

"There are some extreme cases that we see on the street," Kayhan said, "and the last thing we want to do is put them in jail. Here's a guy who is really a classic example. The intent of the law is to find another avenue to engage people who are participating in the kind of harmful behavior that leads to misery and death. I see this as a missed opportunity."

Of course, there is no question that the advocates believe in what they are doing. They insist they are giving representation to the powerless, standing up for homeless against the legal system.

And that's what they were doing last Friday, when James Hill died on the cold tiles of a public bathroom, three months after his 37th birthday.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

This is off subject but would like you to be aware of it:

[I got this from the Springbok Club in London. Its a pretty damned rotten attitude not to support your own troops taking bullets for you! Bunch of assholes. Jan]

Recently Marines in Iraq wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their coffees and to request that they send some of it to the troops there. Starbucks replied, telling the Marines thank you for their support of their business, but that Starbucks does not support the war, nor anyone in it, and that they would not send the troops their brand of coffee.

So as not to offend Starbucks, maybe we should not support them by buying any of their products! I feel we should get this out in the open. I know this war might not be very popular with some folks, but that doesn't mean we don't support the boys on the ground fighting street -to-street and house-to-house.

If you feel the same as I do then pass this along, or you can discard it and no one will never know.

Thanks very much for your support . I know you'll all be there again when I deploy once more.

Semper Fidelis.
Sgt. Howard C. Wright
1st Force Recon Co
1st Plt PLT


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