Bringing the Prison Industrial Complex to a Neighborhood Near You

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Newsome ignores voters: Community Justice Center opens on Polk St.

by Chloe Auletta-Young/Race, Povery and Media Justice Intern

“If we had homes, we wouldn’t be homeless anymore,” Tiny, AKA Lisa Gray-Garcia said in response to the San Francisco’s new Community Justice Center (CJC), otherwise known as the Poverty Court. The Court is to serve the Tenderloin, South of Market, Civic Center, and Union Square neighborhoods. The notorious concept, borrowed from Rudy Guiliani and his drive to rid Manhattan of its “peddlers, panhandlers, and prostitutes,” creates a courtroom - equipped with holding cells, and a space allocated for administrative, health, social and community services for the defendant - designated specifically for misdemeanors and infractions, or as Mayor Newsom puts it – as did Guiliani - quality of life crimes. Quality of whose life, I wonder.

I am very supportive of gay rights. So I have always thought highly of Mayor Gavin Newsom. I have been unaware of the other causes he champions in the background. One of these was Proposition L, the movement to authorize funding for the CJC allowing for it to be fully operational. Voters soundly defeated it with strong opposition from the Board of Supervisors. Mayor Newsom vetoed the loss, and the Center opened for business on March 5th, 2009.

I needed to learn more. On April 8th, I crossed the bay from Richmond to San Francisco and into Glide Memorial Church to attend an informational session. Glide is an expansive building that looks more like a hotel than a sanctuary, the only sign to the contrary was the countless homeless resting at its feet unmolested, a sight rarely seen at any of the City’s private establishments. The small audience, comprised primarily of homeless rights advocates and social workers, for the most part united in resounding opposition to the Center and were largely unmoved by the promotional rhetoric from the panelists and Center workers.

Out of 144 cases tried as of April 4th, the first most common are citations directly relating to homelessness – 52 for “crimes” like lodging, obstructing the sidewalk, public nuisance, loitering, etc. This number is followed by 35 for the possession of an illicit smoking device, 20 for theft, and 8 for Marijuana, all of which are situations correlative to poverty. Rather than addressing the circumstance, the Community Court addresses the behavior, requiring the defendant to be seen by the social workers who “reconnect” them with already existing services around the city. Most of the cases are dismissed.

“It’s duplicative,” says Jennifer Freidenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, “we should be triaging based on need, not if a cop messes with you…The police decide who they send there, and they can start issuing misdemeanors instead of infractions…It’s a tool to promote swift justice, and they are using the court as a hook.” It is in face true, that the CJC does not issue the guidelines for its own referrals. That jurisdiction falls under the Field Operations Bureau Deputy Chief, and the Civil Rights department of the Coalition on Homelessness is on a mission to discover the specific instructions as to where and under what principles an officer refers people to the Center versus the Superior Court.

It seems to me like Newsom is attempting to mimic Time Square, to create a plastic city with plastic values and plastic lives that slip through cracks like credit cards. It is a gentrification tool, a more politically correct power washer. Consumers are more apt to shop at Macy’s when homeless are not lying at their feet. Tiny, AKA Lisa Gray-Garcia, Poverty Scholar and Co-founder of POOR Magazine, was one of a handful at the information session to comment on the questionable intentionality behind the court, stating “The critique behind the Community Justice Center is that it is a logical progression of the hygienic metaphor – cleaning the streets and taming neighborhoods into Time Square…When people are struggling they will start using or turning to underground activities to survive.”

Tomiquia Moss, the Court’s Director and one of the three panelists, responded to this general inquiry, proclaiming, “It is inaccurate to say that this is a conspiracy to get homeless people off the streets.” I may not be from San Francisco but I’m pretty sure I recall Newsom initially advocating the center as a homeless court. In the Mayor’s December of 2006 State of the City’s Homelessness Address, he first mentioned the concept, describing the Center as one that would deal specifically with “chronic inebriants” living on the streets, the idea being that the police could pick them up and bring them directly to the Court. Turns out, that’s illegal, so the focus was broadened and the police were required to issue citations with a summons date. 52 out of 144…that is a pretty direct focus.

The initiative has faced resistance throughout its long-term inception. Beginning with its official announcement in March of 2007, protests and pleas from the homeless and poor communities, as well as advocacy agencies abounded. Marlon Krump, Poverty and Race Scholar, and Staff Writer at POOR Magazine went to City Hall last year to address the Board of Supervisors, asking the root question, “Why should Newsom, or any Mayor in the United States, be allowed to criminalize people for being poor?” A handful of City Supervisors are against the Center, and District 11 Supervisor John Avalos spoke at an Anti-Proposition L rally on October 30th, 2008, exclaiming, “We can do better in San Francisco. We need compassion, not criminalization.”

The Community Justice Center is a misguided attempt to “address the homeless problem” in San Francisco. Turns out it is also expensive. The Board of Supervisors approved $500,000 last year, with another $984,000 coming from a federal grant. This $984,000 is directed toward personnel, meaning it’s an on-going cost for which we have yet to establish a dependable funding source for the upcoming year. Newsom has not explicitly stated this money will not come from the city in the future.

Proposition L was Newsom’s request for a further allocation of $771,885 to continue operations and finance holding cells. This portion of the budget was taken directly from the general fund, the pot of gold from which most social services in the city survive. Question from the audience, “Ms. Moss, wouldn’t this money be better directed toward addressing systemic issues of homelessness, such as further funding low-income housing?” Her response: “This is not the magic bullet…we don’t have all the answers.” In a city scraping to get out from under a $350 million deficit, you better know for a fact that the programs you are supporting are going to work. Roofs, walls, beds, showers, kitchens, they work, there’s proof of that. A brand new and very controversial $2.4 million court? That’s a pretty big gamble to be playing with the over 15,000 lives sleeping on the street.

I am apparently not alone in my opinions. On November 4th, 2008, the citizens of San Francisco voted against allocating more money for the Center. Newsom, with the support of the District Attorney Kamala Harris, went ahead anyways, it’s now open for the public on 575 Polk St.

I visited the Court on April 9th. I walked to a very modest building with very modest doors. As I swung them open, a metal detector and a security guard greeted me. “I’m here to watch the proceedings,” I asked him, “am I allowed to do that?” He looked confused as he awkwardly directed me towards the courtroom. I take it not very many young white girls have walked through those doors without a staff pass, just a guess. I entered brightly lit room, turquoise leather chairs and a water fountain, all very…hygienic.

While there, I had the pleasure of spending time with Bob Offer-Westort, Staff Organizer for the Civil Rights branch of the Coalition on Homelessness, and one of his clients, Azhrei Shadowdragon, a homeless Poverty Scholar for over 13 years, who was summoned with citations for obstructing the sidewalk, public nuisance, and lodging. Shadowdragon was sleeping by the Asian Art Museum when he was awoken by several Homeless Outreach Officers. They took his picture – which had never happened before - and issued him two misdemeanors and one infraction. “They [the police officers] told us that sleeping outside is illegal now in San Francisco. All I could think was that the number of speed addicts in the city is going to sky rocket. If you have no-where to sleep, how else are you going to stay awake?” When asked if he thought this type of harassment had increased since March 5th, he responded, “I’ve seen a lot more cops around this neighborhood.”

I’m presently on a mission to find out whether or not citations related to lodging have actually increased during March of 2009, as opposed to March of 2008. I have issued a formal request to the Hall of Justice and District Attorney’s Office, and am impatiently awaiting response. Stay tuned for the update.

In the meantime, earth to Mayor Newsom: San Francisco’s poverty crisis is not being perpetuated by the criminals that will be tried in your new court. It is perpetuated by a lack of affordable housing, budget cuts in life-saving services, and the social stigma surrounding the poor. Spending vital funds on the CJC, a system that does nothing to address the systemic roots of poverty and homelessness, that does not offer any new solution other than to temporarily busy worn-out hands with free labor and anger management classes, precious time spent away from earning enough money for food, is a criminal act in and of itself, ESPECIALLY since it is against the will of the voters. I asked Shadowdragon what he thought the homeless community in the neighborhood perceived about the court. He answered, “Unfortunately, people don’t know that much about it, but if they knew the track record of dismissals then they would be pissed about all the money being wasted.”


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