2008-03-13 18:09:10 UTC
How helping the homeless can hurt them
Thursday, March 13, 2008 (SF Chronicle)
When a homeless man named James Allen Hill overdosed and died in
the restroom of the San Francisco library last Friday afternoon, it
was a shocker.
A drug overdose in the public library? Really?
"It was an unfortunate and tragic incident for everyone," said
library spokeswoman Marcia Schneider. "Especially for the security
staff that handled it."
There will be those who will see Hill's death as a failure of the
system, another example of how the city neglects its poorest
That's not the story here. The city did anything but neglect Hill.
But his case does show a flaw, all right: Chronic and incorrigible
offenders avoid the consequences of their actions - aggressive
panhandling, public urinating or drunkenness - often through the help
of well-intentioned attorneys for homeless advocates.
And instead of being placed in treatment, the offender goes back on
the street and continues his destructive behavior.
Hill is a perfect example. A familiar nuisance in the Haight, Hill
slept in a garage doorway near the Panhandle and was a constant,
drunken annoyance to residents and police. From Aug. 27 of last year
to Jan. 22, Hill was cited at least 15 times by officers, mostly for
open alcoholic containers on the street and public drunkenness.
Time and again, those citations were dismissed.
Often cases like Hill's never even make it to court. The district
attorney's office says that is because homeless advocate attorneys
drag out the process as long as possible, creating a paper bottleneck
in the courts with "burden of proof" legal requests. There are so many
steps and appeals that any misstep can result in a dismissal, which
the DA's office says is why hundreds of "quality of life"' infractions
are thrown out.
To illustrate, Assistant District Attorney Paul Henderson went
through court records and found six cases in which Hill was
represented in court by Homeless Coalition attorneys. In what has
become a familiar refrain, those attorneys got three of the cases
dismissed before they came to trial.
In the other three active cases, prosecutors had offered to drop
the charges if Hill agreed to go into treatment for his alcohol
problem, Henderson said.
"In other words, we were saying, we don't want to prosecute him,
fine him, or send him to jail, but he's got to go to services. And
he's got to show us proof that he's gone," he said.
Attorneys fought citations.
The offer was declined as Hill's attorneys fought the citations.
They were still fighting them when he died.
"There's a really good chance we could have saved this guy's life,"
said Dariush Kayhan, the city's homeless coordinator.
Hill is the personification of the city's frustration with chronic
offenders. There wasn't any question about Hill's problems. He drank
to excess, used heroin, and careened out of control around the
At one point Hill was so drunk that a police officer found him peeing
on a black-and-white cruiser.
Does this sound like someone who needs help? Not to the advocates,
or the high-powered local law firms who volunteer to do pro bono work
to keep people like Hill from convictions.
"It's frustrating," Henderson said. "If he had been convicted, he
would have been in treatment."
Attorneys who advocate for the homeless insist it is not that
simple. Elisa Della-Piana is an attorney for the Lawyers Committee
for Civil Rights, which often works for the Homeless Coalition and its
clients. She wouldn't confirm that Hill was one of her group's clients
but said the District Attorney's Office "has never offered a treatment
bed or treatment slot to any of our clients."
The distinction here may be what constitutes a "treatment service."
In any case, Hill didn't get it.
'An artificial hoop'
One of the primary reasons cases are dismissed is that advocates
demand a "traffic court response" to the infractions. That means the
arresting officer, who appears at court even though the homeless
person generally does not bother, must generate a written narrative of
what happened. Henderson sees it as "an artificial hoop" that is
designed to muck up the process.
In an appearance before the court this week to try to stop the
dismissal of cases, Henderson argued that a narrative isn't needed
when the charges are explained in the citation.
"The citation is its own authority," he said. "Every single county
in California accepts that, except San Francisco."
In fact, one of Hill's citations was dismissed for "lack of a
traffic court response." Here's a guy with at least 15 citations - not
to mention any number of times when police stopped him, poured out his
booze, and told him to knock it off - and he gets off because of a
lack of a written narrative for the arrest.
You will hear a lot about "criminalizing the homeless," in these
kinds of cases, but who's really being hurt here? It is annoying to
the residents to have a nuisance like Hill in the neighborhood, but
even the police don't want to lock him up.
"There are some extreme cases that we see on the street," Kayhan
said, "and the last thing we want to do is put them in jail. Here's a
guy who is really a classic example. The intent of the law is to find
another avenue to engage people who are participating in the kind of
harmful behavior that leads to misery and death. I see this as a
Of course, there is no question that the advocates believe in what
they are doing. They insist they are giving representation to the
powerless, standing up for homeless against the legal system.
And that's what they were doing last Friday, when James Hill died
on the cold tiles of a public bathroom, three months after his 37th
He glosses over the part about "what constitutes a treatment service";
what I have seen is that judges sentence people to treatment but there
aren't enough "slots" or "beds" available, especially for someone
Anyway, the charade of ticketing and citations isn't worth the effort,
it's just a waste of time. So we are agreed to let people die in the
streets, or, as in this case, the libraries, while pretending we're
doing something to prevent such deaths. OK, then let's not pretend to
be shocked about it when it happens.
Somehow I doubt the story would even have been noticed if he'd died
under a bridge somewhere...