Removing homeless from sight doesn't make them go away

Paul Boden, Jennifer Friedenbach
The insatiable appetite to see homeless people disappear from our parks, streets, business districts and tourist areas requires us all to go back to one of the very first lessons we are taught as infants. Just because you can no longer see it, doesn't mean it no longer exists. Think of this the next time you play peek-a-boo with a toddler. Now you see the homeless. Now you don't. But either way, we're still here. Peek-a-boo!! When city government talks about closing our parks at night and establishing expanded camping and cooking restrictions, and when Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius writes about the parks, we often hear the phrase, "This is not about homelessness. It's about the parks." While this phrase is a great tagline, it is also blatantly untrue.

Park sweeps, police outreach teams and the busting up of encampments in China Basin and along the freeways has EVERYTHING to do with homelessness! Our parks, our freeway underpasses and our streets have been around a lot longer than the very recent advent of closing and fencing them off has. In fact, a direct correlation can be made between the massive increases in homelessness in the early 1980s and the park closures, police programs with both old and new vagrancy laws, and the fencing off of open space. Prior to Mayor Frank Jordan's Matrix program, all of San Francisco's public parks were open 24-hours-a-day. Now, Golden Gate Park closes at 10 p.m. and other parks at dusk or midnight.

Prior to the federal cuts to affordable housing programs - from $83 billion in 1978 to $18 billion in 1983 - contemporary homelessness did not exist. Public parks were open for stargazing (and necking) and panhandling was around but not that big of a deal. After the cuts in government funding for affordable housing, Disney moves into Times Square and Union Square, million-dollar lofts are built in what was once skid row, the public parks are all closed at night, and practically every store front has a "no trespassing" sign in its window. For homeless people, the end result is almost everything other than walking and breathing can get you a ticket, which then lands you in jail.

We need to rediscover what we learned when we were infants: People still exist even if we don't see them. It's called object permanence. Maybe if we remembered this lesson, we would choose to do something about the increasing number of families and individuals living without housing in the United States and begin to fund housing programs again. Maybe we could find a unified community voice for restoring the governor's recent (in a long series of) mental health funding cuts instead of constantly reading about the potential dangers those scary crazy homeless people impose on the rest of us.

When local government is allowed to play peek-a-boo with people's lives, when it is given the authority to make people disappear from society's consciousness, the result is inevitable - incarceration. After all, removing people's presence from society pretty much requires you put them somewhere. As the federal and state governments abandoned all pretense of responsibility for the health and housing needs of people who may be poor and/or disabled, local governments increasingly turned to laws and policing programs to mitigate the damage.

In response, jails are overflowing and municipal courts have established "special courts" along social, as opposed to criminal, lines to deal with this influx. Drug courts, mental health courts and homeless or community courts are all, at their core, manifestations of a criminal justice system overwhelmed by a society that attempts rid itself of poor people rather than attempting to rid itself of poverty. Just as sweeping dirt under the rug doesn't really clean the floor, sweeping disabled and homeless people from public view or into jail doesn't really address homelessness. They are still disabled and homeless when they are released. It is ineffective as hell, but local governments keep trying and we keep letting them.

It has been 25 years since the re-emergence of massive homelessness in America. It is time we stop trying to recreate Jim Crow and start trying to recreate the New Deal. After all, the New Deal didn't build prisons. It created jobs building Hospitals, Schools and Homes. Paul Boden is the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.

This article appeared on page B - 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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