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BASF Responds to Recent Columns on Homeless: Convictions lead to Permanent Homelessness

March 20, 2008 -- Every one of us, from advocates, to City officials, to citizens and visitors, wants to end homelessness. We all want to live in a time when we are not stepping over people who live on our city's sidewalks. But the misleading suggestion in recent articles on the subject- that stepped up legal prosecution of homeless people is the answer - is just not true.

There are those who have argued that if only more homeless people were convicted in court of so-called "quality of life" infractions, homelessness would end. Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, homeless people who are prosecuted remain on the street, but no longer have access to programs that would support them in breaking the cycle. The result? Increased and permanent homelessness.

Here are the facts:

  • No Treatment Through The Court Process. When homeless people are charged with infractions (sleeping in public, having an open container, camping in the park), their cases are heard in Traffic Court. Neither the District Attorney nor the Court offers them treatment. There are no services providers in court. What "treatment" do these homeless defendants get? A sheet of paper with a list of addresses and phone numbers. .
  • Long Waiting Lists For Services. If a homeless defendant does try to access these services on her own, she is likely to run into nothing but dead-ends. Open slots are few and waiting lists are long. There are only 623 residential treatment beds for substance abuse in the City, and waiting lists for all of them. Shelter beds are in short supply, too, with only 1182 beds for more than 2000 homeless people on the streets.
  • Fines, Then Warrants, Then Loss of Services. Homeless people who are convicted of infractions receive a fine (NOT treatment). Being destitute, they cannot pay. Warrants are put out for their arrest, for failure to pay. These warrants then stand as a significant obstacle to getting a job, receiving Social Security benefits, or being eligible for public housing. The resources that could have been used to try to help are gone, making it more likely that the person will remain permanently homeless.

And if all that's not bad enough, there are those who would also prefer to see homeless defendants just get churned quickly through the court system, with no representation. But our system is premised on fairness. The system might well be more efficient if only one side (the government) were represented - a fight always ends more quickly if one of the parties has their hands tied - but it certainly isn't the American way.

We really wish there were a simple solution to the problem of homelessness, but there isn't. If there were, San Francisco and other cities around the country would have found it by now. But one thing is clear: the quick and easy tactic of using the criminal justice system to deal with a social issue just makes the problem more entrenched. As part of the "homeless advocate" community, we understand the frustration with the way things are. We're frustrated, too. We don't insist that you empathize with homeless people, though you may choose to. Nor do we suggest that any of us should simply accept homelessness as a problem that cannot be fixed, or that people should never be held accountable for their conduct. But the current system is a waste of resources, doesn't solve homelessness, and drives potential allies apart. We believe that there is common ground to be found on these issues. We invite you to join with us to look for a better way.

By Tiela Chalmers and Oren Sellstrom

Tiela Chalmers is the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco (; Oren Sellstrom is the Interim Executive Director of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (

May 19 Update: Read the joint statement from BASF, The Office of the District Attorney and the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights

The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) is a nonprofit voluntary membership organization of over 8,000 attorneys, law students and legal professionals in the Bay Area. Founded in 1872, BASF is one of the largest and most dynamic metropolitan bar associations in the U.S., with a long and distinguished record of community action, public service and service to the legal profession.

Questions about media relations, BASF issues currently in the news, San Francisco Attorney magazine, marketing and communications:

Ann Murphy, Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8792

For general communications inquiries:

Sayre Happich, Assistant Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8104