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by Peter Moskos

March 1, 2010

The Homeless, Broken Windows, and Quality-of-Life Crimes in San Francisco

Since there's no good newspaper left in San Francisco, I guess it's up to the Washington Post to report stories like this.

Today, in 2010, the difference between New York City and San Francisco (or Santa Monica) is amazing. I'm always a little shocked out west and think, "Wow, I thought we figured out how to deal with this problem years ago."

I've noticed there is generally more aggressive begging in "nice" neighborhoods than there is in any poor neighborhood. Rich neighborhoods are safer. And in the ghetto, people have less money to give. Plus it's easier to play off white liberal guilt in "nice" parts of town.

In the past 20 years, homelessness has not gone away in New York City, but it's gotten a hell of lot better for both the homeless and normal residents.

Police need to pay attention to "Broken Windows" quality-of-life urban issues. Homelessness is one of these issues. But, some say, the link between "Broken Issues" issues and violent crime has never been proven. True. It may or may not exist (though I suspect it does).

But homicides have gone way down in San Fransisco without any obviously corresponding drop in quality-of-life issues. But quality-of-life issues matter for their own sake. Those who think that public urination, for instance, doesn't matter probably have never had anybody piss on their stoop.

Homeless people have problems. No home, for one. Unemployment, for another. And, more often than not, mental illness and substance abuse. Too many homeless advocates (though not all) seem to advocate for more homelessness rather than less. Aggressive begging helps neither the homeless nor the city.

San Francisco, in terms of homeless and aggressive begging, is like NYC 20 years ago. It doesn't have to be this way. While walking down the street, people have a right not be harassed while walking down the street. Period.

Idiots, like one guy quoted in the story, say that anti-homeless laws, "unfairly targets the poor, homeless and people of color. 'If you illegalize sleeping, camping, lying, sitting, congregating, then what's left: Walking?'" Oh, please. That attitude is so 1980s!

Homeless is a problem for both social services and police (yes, solving the problem does cost money). One without the other won't work. But without the police "or else" of arrest, some people will always "choose" to live on the streets. In my block, that's not an acceptable choice.

If you think thank that homeless should be allowed to live on my block or on my subway, I invite you instead to welcome them to camp in your yard or commute in your car.


Richard P. said...

Dr. Moskos,

I am from St. Louis where begging is rare and concentrated in the few places where public life still exists. Aggressive begging is almost non-existent. Sob stories are normal - most are bs in my opinion.

Once in college I was running an overnight shift in a swanky hotel about 6 blocks from a pretty ripe crack neighborhood. A guy came in about 3am and said his car ran out of gas and that his wife needed to go to the hospital to have her baby. The hotel being down the block from a major hospital and the crazy but real stories one hears on night audit shifts, I gave him 5 bucks.

A few weeks later, the same guy comes in with the same story. As they say, once shame on me, twice shame on you. The security guard this time came to the desk and said to me, "Did you smell the crack on his breathe?" I didn't quite understand. He had horrendous breathe but I didn't know that the cause was crack. But there you have it.

Now to my point. I moved to Toronto for graduate school almost 4 years ago. It is way more urban than St. Louis in that it has a really vibrant street life in many parts of the city. But also I was shocked on how many street people aggressively beg.

The shoppers drugmart near my apartment has a milk crate infront of the sliding doors which is constantly occupied by homeless. Three years of the same group of people begging on the way in and out of a major drugstore. Never have I seen cops clearing the sidewalk. Never have I seen a manager ask the homeless to leave. On more than one occasion I have been cursed at for not acknowledging the beggar. Damn it, I just want to buy my milk, and I might be kinder if it wasn't a damn gauntlet.

In general the area I live in abuts a swanky part of town. Strangely the homeless there are way less aggressive. But my area has porno-shops and massage red lights in second floor apartments. The park across the street is dangerous in the day time as homeless occupy it and do drugs openly. Basically it confuses the hell out of me because I am sure just a little police activity for an extended period would help to clear up the problem. But nothing happens.

Sorry for the rant. Any suggestions?

Unknown said...

I think we all know the real reason for this post- Peter was fleeced by the notorious beggars of Harvard Square during his undergraduate days, and is now taking out his anger in the most socially acceptable manner possible. Damn, did the Chessmaster really beat you so badly?

Seriously, this is a very interesting issue because it gets at the problem of conflicting rights. In a country where unlimited corporate political donations are protected speech, it's hard to argue that begging in and out of itself is not free speech. Besides, nobody is suggesting that we crack down street vendors or religious whackos who leave you alone if you tell them to. If beggars act in the same way, you can't complain.

Of course, with your talk of harassment, you're thinking of a different type of begging. But that raises new questions. Is it acceptable to infringe the rights of non-harassers in order to stop the harassers? And just what is harassment, anyway?

"people have a right not to be harassed while walking down the street" is certainly a noble sentiment. By putting the issue in such stark terms, however, you're coming dangerously close to conservative Christians who believe that they're being harassed when they see homosexuals kissing or feminists who believe that they have a right to not overhear sexist jokes.

Everybody has a different tolerance level. Should we define harassment loosely to insure maximum protection? Should we rely on individuals defining it for themselves? Like most people, I don't like dealing with pandhandlers. (And I've never been to San Francisco, so anyone who has, feel free to blast me for not understanding your situation). But I also don't like the idea of a world in which large-scale police action against the homeless is based on vague feelings of fear and the idea that we have a right to live in a perfect world.

And, to open a whole new can of worms: Peter, if the majority of your block's inhabitants decided that they wanted to open the street to the homeless, would you go along with the decision?

PCM said...

Lenin3, talk to the police. They do tend to respond to complaints.

Ben, you raise very good points. I'm not going to address them all, but I will say I think my post is particularly addressed to suburban and/or limousine liberals.

If you don't actually deal with city issues and problems, I don’t think you deserve much say in telling me what to say, feel, do, or think.

And just as a correction, I went to *grad* school in Cambridge (I did my undergrad at Princeton). And I do like chess, but I don’t think I hold any grudge from Harvard Square.

But... I did have something against the “nice" "friendly" "Hello my dear, how are you? give me a smile!” beggar in Harvard Square (anybody who was there in 1990s knows who I’m talking about--the guy on the toward-Central-Square side of Harvard Square on Mass Ave).

Once, I took perverse childlike pride in correcting another graduate student who called him “homeless.” “How do we know he’s homeless?” I asked like an asshole, “All he know is that he’s a beggar!”

Still, it struck me as amazing that this guy, this one guy, was one of the most well known guys in Cambridge. Maybe he’s still there.

Look, I understand why people don't want to go to shelters. And truth be told, if I had nothing better, I'd prefer to rough it on the streets than go to a shelter. And I don't think being homeless should be a crime.

But... I don't think homeless have the right to live anywhere, like, for instance, the subways. Or anywhere else conspicuous where people will complain. Homelessness is burden society should share, not just who live in cities.

My broader thoughts and with regard to San Francisco, is that the homeless must not held up as an example to be thrown in our face regarding the problems of inequality in society.

Homeless need to be helped to get off the streets. Most homeless would take a *good* alternative. We need to provide this. And for those that wouldn’t, tough titty.

MisguidedPotential said...

The studies below find a strong indirect link between serious crime and disorder. Most serious academics who are critical of this link (as Bratton and Kelling discuss)do not actually disprove "broken windows" because they fail to even recognize that Wilson and Kelling posited the relationship between crime and disorder to be indirect (that's why they used the term 'begets' in their original article).

Braga, A., & Bond, B. (2008). Policing Crime and Disorder Hot Spots: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Criminology, 46, 577-607.

Rosenfeld, R., Fornango, R., & Rengifo, A. (2007). The Impact of Order-Maintenance Policing on New York City Homicide and Robbery Rates. Criminology, 45, 355-384.

Yili, X., Fiedler, M., & Flaming, K. (2005). Discovering the Impact of Community Policing: The Broken Windows Thesis, Collective Efficacy, and Citizens' Judgment. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, 42, 147-186.

Also, pertaining to homelessness, thought this was slightly amusing:


PCM said...

I couldn't agree more.

And thanks for the citations.

MisguidedPotential said...

No problem. Didn't know if you already read them, I had to recently create a literature review for my policy analysis so they were fresh on my mind :(

We seem to have greatly improved our shelters (a lot of funding and donations goes toward them), have largely increased the amount of people going into shelters, and the homeless are in theory offered free housing. The number of homeless children, especially those raised in shelters, has grown exponentially as well.

Despite all this there are thousands of homeless still on the street. I wonder how many of the offered solutions in the Cities' 2003 Action Plan (http://nyc.gov/html/endinghomelessness/downloads/pdf/actionbooklet.pdf) were successfully implemented?

Police enforcement could work, but what about the possibility of citizens looking negatively upon such enforcement? That seems like a potentially high cost -- someone witnessing the officer kicking out the "poor, vulnerable homeless man." Of course many citizens would be happy as well, I just don't think it will result in an overall good image for the NYPD.

Lisa said...

I lived in San Francisco. The homeless problem there is way beyond what it is in other cities. Police enforcement is non-existent. But police enforcement in general is lax in SF and a lax police force is both good and bad at the same time.

I'm not sure how you weigh the rights of people to live on the streets with the rights of others to use those streets to do business. But I do know that if you walk down any given block of SF, you will be asked for money three or four times by three or four different people. If you want to go into a place of business, you will have to fight your way past people who are holding their hands out to you and step over someone who is sleeping in that business' doorway.

Homelessness is the number one problem in SF and it has been for many years. They just can't seem to solve it. They have tried giving incentives for many years, and I don't think it would be too heartless to start using more disincentives.