Panhandlers curbed on Market, Van Ness
- San Francisco Chronicle
Panhandlers curbed on Market, Van Ness
Outreach workers, police mobilized under Prop. M
Drivers and pedestrians who regularly use Van Ness Avenue and parts of Market Street near the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco might be seeing a change over the past month -- the streets are noticeably clearer of panhandlers, for the first time in years.
It isn't that the legions of curbside beggars weaving in and out of traffic suddenly found places to live. Or that they were all hauled off to jail.
They were simply asked to move by police and street outreach workers, under the dictates of Proposition M, the anti-panhandling measure passed last year by voters. Which means they're still around, but just spread throughout the rest of downtown.
"It's kind of amazing to look out right now and not see a bunch of them on the traffic island," marveled Hilda Kissane, sitting with a friend near the corner of Van Ness and Market Street. "There used to be a guy who looked like Santa Claus right there on the corner, and a guy with one leg who walked around in traffic, and so on and so on."
But Kissane, who works across from City Hall on Van Ness as an assistant treasurer for the San Francisco Symphony, added: "The only trouble is that all I have to do is walk a couple blocks away, and there they all are."
Tim Wei, who owns All Star Cafe at the corner of Mission and Ninth streets, lives that reality firsthand.
"Normally, there are quite a few homeless here anyway, but in the last couple months, they're all over us," Wei said as he watched three panhandlers work a passer-by. "I've seen this year after year. The police move them on from one area, but then they come back. They never really fix it. When are they going to clear my street?"
Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wrote Prop. M -- which prohibits panhandling aggressively in front of ATMs or on traffic islands or freeway ramps -- and ordered the intensified police efforts, says he is taking things one step at a time. Clearing off the thoroughfares is just one part of his 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, he said.
The main thrust of his homeless strategy is still getting the hard-core down and out into housing with counseling services and into drug, alcohol or mental rehabilitation programs, he said. And the more that happens, the clearer all the streets will become.
In the meantime, however, Newsom said he will continue to direct the police and outreach teams to keep telling the homeless what the law says -- and each time they do so, to also offer whatever help they need to get off the street and into housing.
He also has city workers clearing benches and planters to the edges of Market Street to make the walkways wider, and putting up portable barriers in spots where homeless people have traditionally clustered to keep them away.
The idea is to help bring back a better sense of belonging and cleanliness for those who work and live downtown -- and even for the homeless who hang out there.
"You don't have to use the hammer to get this job done, and you can't do everything at once," the mayor said on a recent stroll downtown to check on the progress of Prop. M.
The main duties for clearing Market and Van Ness have fallen to eight officers who, under a 3-year-old department program, specialize in working with the homeless.
The city also has a 12-person counseling outreach team that walks through the area regularly, trying to persuade panhandlers to move inside and to warn them that the police will ask them to move. But they make sure their efforts are parallel -- and never directly combined -- with those of the cops, so street people won't get the impression outreach workers are there to bust them.
The Prop. M patrols began gingerly six months ago, with officers simply chatting with the homeless, telling them that the ordinance officially took effect May 25. Then three months ago they started handing out written warnings, called "admonishments," and telling the homeless that if they saw them panhandling again in the same day, they would get a citation instead.
The "admonishments" carry no penalty and were created by Prop. M. The citations can result in arrest and sentences of three months of community service or jail time if a person gets three in one year.
Police Deputy Chief Greg Suhr said officers have written 1,000 admonishments, but just nine citations since Prop. M began. Nobody has been arrested.
In the past three months, the effort has been concentrated mostly on Van Ness, so that is where the effect has been most visible. But this month, teams of police and outreach workers increased their patrols along Market -- deliberately walking its full downtown length three times a day, with street cleaners on motorized sweeps following along.
The main job of the street cleaners is to spray down the sidewalks to clear away urine and other filth left by the homeless. But a byproduct of the patrols is to force anyone sleeping or sitting on the sidewalk to get out of the way.
Homeless advocates have complained since the spring that spraying down streets is harassing sidewalk sleepers. And while they applaud Newsom's reluctance to jail panhandlers, they doubt the street crackdown will have any permanent effect.
"Everyone knows those people who get moved are just going a few streets over. It's always that way," said L.S. Wilson of the Coalition on Homelessness. "What they really need is more rooms, more counseling. Something real. We're a long way from done with this problem."
Danny Baragno, 43, has panhandled Van Ness for several years and, though the crackdown crimped his style, it hasn't stopped him. He weaves through cars with a sign reading, "Anything helps." Though Baragno had to move several blocks south of his usual spot at Mission Street and Van Ness, he still makes about $10 a day.
"We watch for cops coming down the road, and when they pass, we put our signs under our coats," he said as he pocketed a dollar from a driver.
The police aren't really fooled by such ploys, but they're glad they haven't been ordered to get tougher.
"It's a no-win situation for us to issue tickets," said Officer Ray Mahui, who does homelessness patrols on Van Ness. "We're not here to make their lives miserable -- just to let them know what the law says and to offer them whatever they need to get inside."
E-mail Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.