Garcia: Fighting shadows on homelessness 

The number of homeless people on welfare in San Francisco continues to drop at remarkable levels at the same time the amount of rhetoric over quality-of-life crime issues continues to rise.

Could we have it any other way?

This week, members of the mayor’s staff, the District Attorney’s Office, the Police Department, the Public Defender’s Office, local judges and a number of homeless service providers are holding talks about ways in which The City might set up a community justice center to deal with the high-crime neighborhoods in the Tenderloin and South of Market. It’s a rather novel approach to an ongoing problem — one in which a lot of interested parties are giving their insight. And from the cries of injustice that are being tossed out by the usual suspects, you’d think that homeless people are going to be randomly picked up and tossed in jail.

But that’s not going to happen here in our politically correct Shangri-la, any more so than X Games participants are going to be allowed to bungee jump from the Willie Dome. Yet it would be hard to sift the reality from the words that have greeted this prospect — the civic equivalent of fighting shadows that don’t exist.

But a community court, like the ones that exist in many other cities, is badly needed in our crime-plagued central-city area, and you probably wouldn’t need to spend more than an hour in the Tenderloin to figure that out. While there are numerous "quality of life’’ crimes that are generally ignored — public urination, drunkenness and midday sleepovers — most of the real problems surrounding the high-crime areas, such as drug use and drug dealing, have gone virtually unchecked by the local criminal justice system. Police say at least 30 percent of all the drug-related crimes in San Francisco occur in the Tenderloin.

This is a case where ignorance is not bliss. This is not an attack on drug-addicted street people, but a genuine way for judges to get them some help, by immediately getting them needed services shortly after they’re picked up. I would challenge anyone to say it’s more humane to let junkies and people with serious mental problems wander the streets than to link them to social workers and housing providers. And to suggest that this idea is akin to a "crackdown’’ on homeless people holds about as much validity as the idea that drug addiction isn’t related to criminal activity.

It will surprise no one who has read the ideological screeds of Supervisor Chris Daly that he has fashioned himself the primary opponent of the community justice court, in much the same way that he led the fight against Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Care Not Cash welfare reform plan — arguably the most effective tool against homelessness San Francisco has seen in the last two decades. Since that program went into effect three years ago, the number of single adults on welfare has been reduced by more than 2,000 and the number of people in supportive housing has risen by more than 3,000.

"This is an extremely positive thing for the entire criminal justice system,’’ Newsom said. "As with Care Not Cash, I say that people shouldn’t assume us wrong — prove us wrong. And I believe that this has pretty overwhelming support.’’

District Attorney Kamala Harris is in lockstep with Newsom in her desire to create the community justice court, which she says has been needed since her days trekking through the Tenderloin on her way to Hastings Law College. She said the idea is to get people who are cited by police immediately to court where they can be linked with service providers to deal with drug, mental health and housing issues.

"There is always an immediate reaction when you’re dealing with homeless people, and that’s correct, but there has to be some response,’’ she said. "We are not trying to criminalize homeless people; we’re trying to get the most appropriate and humane response and that is to get these people into services.’’

Of course, the most reasonable and common-sense approach gets criticized most often in San Francisco, which explains why attempts to beautify parts of the Tenderloin by neighborhood groups were met with stern resistance by organizations that want to keep the status quo — you know, drugs, prostitution and general seediness. In the immortal words of Daly, who represents the highest crime area of San Francisco: "Why shouldn’t these people have a place of their own?’’

And the answer is they should — in a shelter, a housing unit, in a rehabilitation center, or when appropriate, a jail. Even people who are homeless are not supposed to commit crimes.

Reason and justice could actually find a place here, but as always, it promises to be a battle.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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