Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Neighborhood dysfunction

Compassion | San Francisco businesses and residents want the city to change its coronavirus policies for the homeless
by Charissa Koh
Posted 5/27/20, 02:36 pm

One evening in late March, Wayne Earl was preaching at a chapel service for the Bay Area Rescue Mission when a man began coughing uncontrollably. Earl, the shelter’s chaplain and programs specialist, ended his sermon early. He helped the man put on a mask and called an ambulance. The man tested negative for COVID-19 and returned to the mission. The next day, he said he became a Christian. “I was absolutely humbled by the Spirit of God moving here,” Earl said.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic making their jobs harder, Earl and other mission staff members have continued to serve the homeless and preach the gospel. The mission, located in Richmond, Calif., northeast of San Francisco, previously had 42 staff members and 250 weekly volunteers to serve 275 homeless men, women, and children. Now elderly and vulnerable staff members stay home, and fewer than 100 homeless people stay at the mission: those in the yearlong addiction and poverty recovery programs and those sheltering in place.

While shelters like the Bay Area Rescue Mission scramble to help the homeless, San Francisco’s official coronavirus policies toward the homeless are incentivizing destructive behavior, particularly in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Tensions are rising between city officials and Tenderloin residents, who said in a lawsuit their neighborhood is covered in tents, feces, and needles.

The city’s approach to homelessness is “all compassion and no responsibility,” said Christopher Rufo, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. During the pandemic, San Francisco has allowed tent camping on the streets and directed police officers only to intervene in serious or violent situations. The number of tents there has nearly tripled to 400 since January.

The city rented hotel rooms for the homeless, and officials provide them with alcohol, cannabis, and methadone once there as part of its harm reduction program. The San Francisco Department of Public Health tweeted that the “harm reduction practices … help guests successfully complete isolation and quarantine.” But Rufo said the city’s overall strategy created “a magnet for the homeless from all around the region.”

On May 4, several Tenderloin residents and businesses joined the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, which is located in the neighborhood, to sue the city. Their complaint said city officials treat the Tenderloin as a “containment zone,” allowing homelessness and drug sales there but not in more affluent neighborhoods. Tenderloin business owners and residents said they are afraid to walk the streets.

According to the suit, Hastings spent $66,836 on increased security the month after the health department made its pandemic recommendations, on top of annual security costs of $2.3 million. “What is a city-wide problem should not be allowed to weigh disproportionately on a low-income working-class neighborhood,” the suit says.

Law school Dean David Faigman said the school first asked San Francisco for help, but the city did nothing. Then neighbors volunteered to be co-plaintiffs with the school.

Two days after the plaintiffs filed suit, the city of San Francisco released a revised COVID-19 plan for the Tenderloin. It acknowledged the challenges: tents blocking sidewalks, garbage and waste piling up, and people dealing in drugs. The plan recommended offering the homeless safe sleeping alternatives, reserving some streets for pedestrians, providing more garbage disposal and handwashing stations, and increasing police presence in the area. Two days later, Faigman called the plan “entirely inadequate” but hoped the two sides can find a solution: “Nothing would make me happier than to have the litigation go away and to have the Tenderloin be treated like other neighborhoods in San Francisco.”

Rufo will be surprised if the city changes course. But he said tech companies and successful businesses are questioning the value of being in San Francisco while city policies incentivize homeless people and drug users to move there: “You can only go so far with those trends before something starts to break.”

Associated Press/Photo by Austen Leake/Tribune-Star (file) Associated Press/Photo by Austen Leake/Tribune-Star (file) The 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Terre Haute, Ind.

Running alone, together

When the Pittsburgh Marathon had to cancel its Run for a Reason charity event, it offered refunds to those who had signed up. But about 1,100 people decided to run on their own.

“They still all got their medal and their shirt and their sunglasses,” said Allison Corbett, the senior vice president for the organization that helped organize the event.

With large group runs and walks off the table during the coronavirus outbreak, nonprofit groups across the country are coming up with creative alternatives to raise money. Some, like the Pittsburgh chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, gave people the option of running on their own time and at their own pace. The American Cancer Society scheduled a virtual relay run around New York’s Finger Lakes. But Work, a nonprofit group that fights poverty in Haiti, gave participants perhaps the most leeway, allowing them to do 200 of just about anything, from running 200 miles to baking 200 cookies. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola (file) Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola (file) A polling station in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Unable to pay, able to vote

A federal judge ruled on Sunday that ex-felons in Florida can still vote if they cannot pay their legal fees or other monetary restitution.

Last year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that required released felons to pay all fines related to their crimes before restoring their right to vote. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle partially overturned that law, saying the state can only keep felons from voting if they have the money to pay fees but have failed to do so—not if they lack the funds.

Floridians approved Amendment 4 in 2018, giving felons the right to vote after they complete their prison sentences. DeSantis and others argued that fees and fines make up part of a convict’s sentence and must be paid to complete restitution to the state. Opponents called DeSantis’ law a thinly veiled tax on impoverished voters. —Kyle Ziemnick

Associated Press/Photo by Michael Conroy (file) Associated Press/Photo by Michael Conroy (file) The Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind.

Meatpacking outbreaks threaten immigrants

COVID-19 swept through a South Dakota food processing plant in April, highlighting the risks to immigrants who hold many frontline jobs in the industry. Food processing sites, where crowded conditions make social distancing difficult, have proven especially susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks. At least 20 workers in food packing plants have died of COVID-19 in the United States. Many of the plants reopened after President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to keep the U.S. food supply chain running. Roughly 175,000 immigrants make up about 40 percent of the U.S. meatpacking industry’s workers. Immigrants comprise 58 percent of the meatpackers in South Dakota and 66 percent in Nebraska, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The industry has the fifth-highest concentration of refugee workers, the nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute reported. —R.L.A.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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  •  CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Thu, 05/28/2020 12:35 pm

    The requirement that felons complete payment of restituion was a seliing point for Amendment 4. Removing that requirement invalidates the Amendment. That is what the appeal should argue.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 05/29/2020 01:04 am

    I'm still just fine with felons forfeiting their right to vote for life. 

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 05/29/2020 01:12 am

    Regarding covid deaths among meat processing workers:  working backwards from the figures cited in the article, it appears there are about 440,000 people nationwide working in meat processing. 

    TWENTY deaths is such a tiny percentage, I'm not sure it would even be statistically significant. It comes to just 5/1000 of 1%. 

    Don't think it needs to be very high on our list of things to sweat about. 

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 05/29/2020 01:21 am

    And regarding San Francisco's policies towards the homeless, including the new policies brought about during the covid pandemic:

    I've thought for years surely someone must be lacing the water supplies of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles with hallucinogens.  

    Looks like more evidence I'm right.