SAN FRANCISCO—A handful of individuals are putting a dent in the city’s wallet by ramping up medical fees, wasting public servants’ time, and scaring off tourists, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
“It is a small group that creates a lot of trouble,” said Gascón at a public policy forum at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
His office counted 69 individuals who make up the core of repeat offenders—some of whom have received hundreds of citations over the years. Many of them have drug or mental health issues, are usually homeless, and refuse to go to court.
Most of the citations are written for so-called quality-of-life offenses, like camping in a park, obstruction of a sidewalk, or are related to the consumption of alcohol, according to data collected by the San Francisco Human Services Agency between 2007 and 2011.
Gascón said his office receives many complaints from visitors who say they won’t return to the city because of feeling intimidated after encountering aggressive panhandling. Many were literally chased by people asking for money, he said.
“It definitely has a negative impact on the attractiveness of the city to visitors,” said John Ballesteros, vice president for public policy at the San Francisco Travel Association, in a phone interview.
According to surveys conducted by the Association, one out of four visitors said that “bad street behavior” would be the main reason they wouldn’t return, Ballesteros said. “It is one the top issues we need to address.”
Tourism is a major source of income for San Francisco. According to the Association, 16 million visitors came to the city in 2011, spending a total of $8 billion during their stay and supporting more than 71,000 jobs.
Besides deterring visitors and impacting the quality of life for residents, there is the expense to the public, Gascón points out.
Repeat offenders cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes even up to a million dollars per year, he said, due to expensive ambulance runs, emergency services, incarceration, and the use of the fire and police departments.
Until last year, the DA, through a contempt of court procedure, would give repeat offenders who are addicts the choice between a treatment program or up to 150 days of jail without trial. But a recent ruling by the California Courts of Appeal deemed this practice unconstitutional.
The DA’s office over the last few weeks has started to prosecute each of the 69 cases.
We are not interested in incarcerating these people … [but] in fixing their behavior.
—George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney
“It is important [for the city] to establish clear boundaries around certain bad behavior,” Gascón said. At the same time, he repudiated the argument that his office is engaged in a “war on the homeless.”
Gascón stressed the importance of getting those who are homeless off the streets and giving them some form of employment. “We need to help them to get their life back together,” he said.
Gascón said that repeat offenders should be able to get the services they need to deal with mental health issues and drug abuse. This would save public money as well as improve public safety.
City statistics from 2004 show that the average chronically homeless person costs the city $61,000 for public services each year. To offer them permanent public housing and health or drug treatment would cost $16,000.
There are about 6,500 homeless people in San Francisco, according to a 2011 survey. Gascón puts the total number of repeat offenders in the hundreds.
To find a consensus for the best approach, his office is in contact with all stakeholders, including public defender Jeff Adachi, who had challenged the previous practice of jailing repeat offenders, Gascón said.
“We are not interested in incarcerating these people … [but] in fixing their behavior,” Gascón said.
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