The United States, despite often advertising itself as the world’s “most developed” nation, has a major problem with homelessness, with approximately 3.5 million currently living with no place to call home. Even though vacant houses outnumber the nation’s homeless by more than five to one, most of them end up sleeping in public places or out in the street. In cities around the country, the homeless are frequently criminalized as are those who offer them food and other forms of human kindness. Despite the widespread maltreatment of the homeless, judges in San Francisco have been dismissing thousands upon thousands of arrest warrants targeting the homeless because “it was the right thing to do.”
Many of these arrest warrants were for so-called “quality of life” crimes, which include sleeping on sidewalks or public places, urinating in public, and public drunkenness. The vast majority of these infractions are punishable only by fines, which the homeless obviously cannot afford. In years prior, those who failed to show up in court or were unable to pay the fines were issued arrest warrants carrying a sentence of five days in jail or longer depending on the fine’s amount.
Just within the past year, this inhuman precedent changed for the better when San Francisco Superior Court judges stopped issuing arrest warrants for these “quality of life” crimes. Not only that, but the judges also threw out over 66,000 arrest warrants that had been issued since January 2011. Though the San Francisco’s police union and some private citizens strongly protested and criticized the decision, the city’s chief judge, John Stewart, defended the judges’ actions to the press this past week. Stewart said, “you’re putting somebody in jail because they’re poor and can’t pay a fine. We got a lot of criticism, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”
San Francisco has a major problem with homelessness, with approximately 7,000 people living on the street. A significant part of this high homeless population has been due to the explosion of gentrification that has forced out low-income residents and small businesses across the city. Gentrification, defined as the process by which an influx of more affluent residents results in increased property values and the displacement of lower-income families, became a major issue in San Francisco around the same time that many tech companies began choosing to locate their businesses in the city over nearby “Silicon Valley.” The influx of wealthy tech employees has forced out thousands of families that have lived in San Francisco for generations, all because they can no longer pay the rent. Those San Francisco residents who couldn’t afford to leave became homeless. San Francisco now has the most expensive rent in the entire country as the average one-bedroom apartment now costs $3,530 a month. Though the city’s judges have shown great compassion in dismissing the cases against the city’s homeless, it will take much more for the problem of the San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness to disappear.