City's efforts to assist GG Park homeless fall short

by Thomas K. Pendergast

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Although it might seem to be an abstract and esoteric question, in San Francisco this is no barrier for admission into reality.

For example, there is the apparently irresistible force of public pressure for the City to do something about homelessness, including the homeless inhabitants of Golden Gate Park. And then there is the seemingly immovable object of the homeless people who reside there.

Lately these forces have met and the result is a recent Civil Grand Jury report that makes seven recommendations, one of which is now being legislated by the SF Board of Supervisors.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation in July to establish uniform, citywide hours for all city parks. Currently, the Municipal Code does not set park hours, which has led to a patchwork of informal park hours that are inconsistent and difficult to enforce. Wiener's proposal would close all city parks between midnight and 5 a.m., conforming to one of the recommendations in the Grand Jury report. An exception would be granted for the public's use of roads or sidewalks to traverse the park.

"This legislation will establish opening and closing hours for our parks so that everyone can enjoy them, while helping protect against vandalism, dumping and other crimes that happen in our parks at night," Wiener said.

According to the SF Recreation and Park Department (RPD), about $1 million is spent annually cleaning up vandalism and illegal dumping, and at least one-third of the departments' maintenance work orders are to repair vandalism damage. Rec. and Park employs two cleaning crews to pick up debris from illegal dumping, which averages about three tons per week.

Because of staffing cutbacks, says the RPD, there are usually only 2-3 park patrol officers on duty throughout the park.

"This legislation will stop these acts, so that we can shift our resources towards improving our parks and providing more services," says RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg.

In the Civil Grand Jury report, it is estimated that perhaps as many as 200 people live in the park.

"It is common for permanent dwellers to be older people, often military veterans," according to the report. "They typically settle in the west side of the park … alone or in very small groups. Although permanent dwellers tend to be aware of city homeless services, they usually choose not to receive assistance. Mental health issues and drug use are common. The Jury believes it relevant that the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center is only five blocks north of the park.

"Transient dwellers are usually younger and often live in small and rotating groups. Campsites are generally close to the eastern edge of the park, near Lake Alvord and Haight Street. Individuals in this group often come to the park with the intention of leaving after a time. They are less likely to be familiar with city homeless services, and often come from difficult backgrounds, such as an abusive home. Many of these dwellers are seasonal and regional transients who follow a mass homeless migration along the West Coast from Southern California to Oregon and Washington."

Most of the Grand Jury's recommendations are concerned about how the City collects and records data related to homelessness. It calls for a formalized system of gathering information, with the information being used to tailor support services, and establishing a system to track its outreach efforts and evaluate the overall effectiveness in reducing the number of park dwellers.

It also calls for teams of city representatives to "conduct in-person, proactive outreach (to the park's homeless) at different times of the day and night, in order to maximize their efforts," which would likely require the SF Police Department (SFPD) and the Park Patrol to expand its numbers in the park.

The SFPD does have a team of about 17 officers assigned to community outreach with the homeless population throughout the City, and at least three of them patrol Golden Gate Park.

"At this point, there are no plans to expand the number of police officers assigned to this team," said officer Gordon Shyy of the SFPD. "While we would like to dedicate more officers to this team, we are currently short staffed, and need to have staffing for patrol and other units."

Many homeless people fear living in the park because they are often the victims of crime, often-times by other homeless people.

The Grand Jury's final recommendation is to ban all shopping carts in the park.

Elton Pon of the RPD says the department now removes all abandoned property in the park and spends about $400,000 annually removing illegally dumped items.

Pon chose not to comment on whether the RPD has the resources to enforce such a ban, or whether they would support or oppose the ban, or whether they have any enforcement plans in place.

Shyy said the SFPD's extra cost for enforcing a ban on shopping carts is "hard to measure."

A man at a homeless encampment in the park identified himself as Emo Alahmustafa, 30, originally from New York City. He said he is an artist and he first came to San Francisco in 2007.

"Sometimes the park is the only place where I have to dig myself, like an Alabama tick, into the bushes so far, so deep, just to feel normal. This place is real intricate man; It's hard to please everybody," Alahmustafa said. "Life is hard enough already for us. I barely don't have no means to eat. You're cold; you're hungry all the time. People don't care about you. Why should they? You're a bum. You don't work … I understand this. You ever try to get a job when you're homeless, with no residence, no phone, nothing, no references? C'mon. It's impossible."

He scoffs at the idea that a ban on shopping carts will change anything, considering that there are plenty more available all over town.

"What's the point in taking them away - so more shopping carts get taken?"

Camping overnight is already against the law in the park, so Alahmustafa does not see how making it illegal to be hanging out in the park from midnight to 5 a.m. is going to change much. After all, arresting some homeless people means they get a warm place to sleep and regular meals, hardly a disincentive.

Giving out citations does not seem like much of a solution to him either.

"I think it would be even more a part of the problem because you're going to give the guy a ticket; He doesn't have any money. He doesn't work. You're making his life worse."

The homeless man's solution would be to drop the stick and focus on the carrot.

"Don't make it harder; Make it easier. Make it easier for people to get off the street. I don't want to live here. People think it's cool to be a friggin' bum. How cool is this? I haven't showered for three friggin' months. … It's ridiculous," Alahmustafa said. "Throwing people in the fire doesn't help. Pulling people out of it helps. Get me a job; that's how you can help. I want an apartment. I want to be a part of this. San Francisco is so cool."