Homeless policy failure

Unfinished History


San Francisco homeless policy in action

Photo: Chris Carlsson

A comprehensive timeline of The City's anti-homeless measures, extracted from The Coalition On Homelessness's report "Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco." Originally printed in Street Sheet Vol. 27, No. 13 on July 1, 2015

A timeline of homeless policy over various San Francisco mayoral administrations 1980–2014

Feinstein Administration


City replaced old sit/lie law with sidewalk obstruction ordinance


Ordinance passes banking sleeping in parks between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.


Ordinance passes banning habitation in vehicles

Agnos Administration


Sweeps in Golden Gate Park, Civic Center and Cole Valley


Mayor Art Agnos orders police chief Frank Jordan to sweep Civic Center Plaza of the 60-100 people living there.

Jordan Administration


Between 1988 and 1995 Food Not Bombs is arrested over 1,000 times for sharing food.

After the passing of Prop 1, The City outlaws aggressive panhandling.

Alford Lake (Part of Golden Gate Park) was closed during evenings.


The Matrix program begins. Between August and December 5th, 602 citations are issued to homeless people for “quality of life” offenses. More citations for sleeping and camping in parks, drinking in public, obstructing the sidewalk and sleeping in doorways were issued in the first month of Matrix than in the five previous years combined. The Transbay Bus Terminal, home to more than 100 homeless people, lock its doors to them. A program serving many of the Terminal’s severely mentally ill residents is shut down.

Virtually every city park is closed at night by the Recreation and Parks commission.


“No parking from 2:00am to 6:00 am” signs are put up by the Port Authority on a street in China Basin where most of the city’s mobile residents reside.

Mayor Jordan declared to the media that armed criminals posing as homeless people are using shopping carts to transport weapons. He ordered the SFPD to arrest people in possession of shopping carts. The people of San Francisco openly express their outrage at this proposal and no one is arrested.

Sit/lie ordinance fails to pass as proposition

11,562 “quality of life” citations are issued.


In August, Mayor Jordan plans Matrix II, “Take back our parks:” a multi-departmental intensive sweep of Golden Gate Park, and uses it as a media moment in his mayoral campaign. Homeless people lose property and are displaced.

14,276: "quality of life” citations issued

Brown Administration


50 homeless people are evicted from a lot in Bayview referred to as “Land of the Lost.” The City settles out of court.

SFPD forms “Operation Park.” 2-6 police officers on each shift are assigned to roust and cite homeless people in the streets if their districts.

17,532 “quality of life” citations issued. More citations issued after the highly unpopular “Matrix Program.”


Massive sweeps of Golden Gate Park begin. Mayor Brown asks to borrow the Oakland Police Department night vision-equipped helicopter to locate homeless people illegally sleeping in the park, but is denied. Homeless people lose property are displaced. A special crew of Recreation and Park employees is formed specifically to maintain and identify and destroy encampments across the City.

Caltrans creates a special unit that sweeps homeless people and their property from under bridges and highways.

15,671 “quality of life citations” issued.


“No loitering or sleeping” signs are placed in public parks around the City.

Civic Center plaza is remodeled. The fountain is removed, two children playgrounds are added, and the park is cleared of homeless people. A police officer was assigned to monitor the park.

In a 2015 Chronicle article, Brown admits the primary motivation was to rid the area of homeless people.

Board of Supervisors makes it illegal to drink in parks where poor people congregate.

Board of Supervisors passes ordinance making it possible for police to cite people for camping or sleeping in UN and Hallide Plazas.

18,590 "quality of life" citations issued.


SFPD officers take photos of homeless people claiming they were "creating a scrapbook." They distribute copies to local merchants ordering them not to sell alcohol to anyone in the pictures because they are "habitual drunkards." City settles lawsuit out of court.

Anti-Panhandling legislation, called "Pedestrian Safety Act" fails to pass

Mayor Brown orders homeless people to be charged with felonies if found in possession of shopping cart. After a week of bad press, he never orders it.

23,871 "quality of life" citations are issued.


Photo: Erica Dawn Lyle


City attorney begins prosecuting homeless people in traffic court for "quality of life" offenses. Program costs $250,000 and falls in its stated purpose to connect homeless people with services they supposedly reduce.

Ordinance banning camping in parks passes.

17,954 "quality of life" citations issued.


Ordinance banning loitering near public toilets passes.

Benches are moved from UN Plaza in a midnight attack, costing City $24,000 in overtime.

Large encampment under Ceasar Chavez Circle overpass is swept by DPW. Property belonging to homeless residents was videotaped being thrown into garbage truck. After the story aired on local news, Mayor Brown claims homeless advocates staged the incident and that the homeless person interviewed by news crews was an actor. 75 homeless people were displaced and many lost property. A fence is erected by Caltrans.

DA starts prosecuting California Penal Code 647 (J), a misdemeanor that makes it illegal; to lodge on public or private property. Homeless people begin to spend more time in jail. 9,134 "quality of life" citations issued.


A large encampment is swept from Berry Street. 100 homeless people are displaced and a fence is erected by DPW. City spends $13,644 on this sweep, not including costs for extensive police presence on the day of the sweep.

DPW starts "Operation Scrubdown" targeting downtown streets and alleys. Workers move on encampments, and then hose them down with nasty chemicals making it impossible to return to that spot. DPW estimates that the operation cost the city $11,000 every day.

Board of Supervisors passes new law prohibiting urinating and defecation in public, but no new public bathrooms are opened.

6,957 "quality of life" citations issued


"No habituating in your vehicle between 10pm-6am" signs are put up in China Basin and Bayview Districts.

Ordinance banning aggressive panhandling passes to include areas around check cashing operations and motor vehicles.

Homeless people living and caring for the property behind Laguna Honda hospital are relocated.

10,000+ "quality of life" citations issued.

Newsom Administration

Anti-Panhandling ordinance championed by Newsom, and passed as a ballot initiative comes into effect. Newsom claims criminalization will push violators into substance abuse or mental health treatment. Instead the treatment remains grossly underfunded, and the result is fines and arrest.

SF Coalition discovers that it costs San Francisco more than $10,000 to prosecute a single CPC 647(j) case ("illegal lodging"), which was being charged as a misdemeanor at the time.

SFPD launches "Operation Outreach" and begins assigning special units of officers to addressing 911 calls regarding homelessness.

Camping citations triple from 436 in 2003 to 1114 in 2004


District Attorney grants amnesty to thousands of homeless people with "nuisance" citations.


San Francisco is named the 11th meanest city in the nation to its homeless according to a National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, based on an index of anti-homeless laws and severity of penalties among other indicators.

City creates "focused enforcement" program to target quality of life infractions including sleeping in public, while city loses 300 shelter beds over the past 18 months.


Eight days after the Chronicle runs a story about Homelessness in Golden Gate Park, police raid camps at the park at 4:30 am. After, seven workers are hire to work full time to remove encampments. Newsom proposes new park code to expand the definition of camping to prohibit modifying "the landscape in any way in order to create a shelter or accommodate household furniture or appliances or construction debris in any park.


Panhandler shot dead by officers who were trying to give him a citation for begging, when the man pulled a knife out as he was trying to escape.


San Francisco is named the 7th meanest city in the nation to its homeless according to a National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless. A move up from #11 three years earlier.

San Francisco launches the Community Justice Center, which focuses on low-level crimes in the Tenderloin. Although the court's diversion of these cases from jail time may be seen as a step towards de-criminalization—lowering punishments and reducing jail costs—some scholars and critics also see this as a further legitimization of dealing with sleeping and drug use through a punitive court system, rather than simply expanding social services. In its first year, the most common crime tried is misdemeanor sleeping followed by possession of a crack pipe. In the same year, shelters and resources for substance abuse are cut in the city budget.


In a replay of the 1993 Transbay terminal sweep, the state closes the terminal were roughly 140 San Franciscans lived, a large portion among the most disabled in the city. Newsom was quick to boast about the work the city was doing in housing people, but an investigation of the coalition found that the services being offered were merely a couple dozen already-existing shelter beds taken from other homeless people, and a handful of stabilization rooms.

Sit/lie ordinance is enacted through voter passed proposition and championed by newsroom. A blitz media campaign funded largely by Pacific Heights Moguls ultimately outspent opponents by roughly $400,000.

Lee Administration


317 homeless people found in San Francisco's jail in the Point in Time Count, the first time the count included counting those in jail. This amounted to roughly 25% of the entire jail population and represented 5% of the homeless people counted that night.


Oversized vehicle ban ordinance passes through the board of supervisors. MTA begins plastering signs throughout the entire city, which continues to this day, narrowing the legal spaces homeless people may park their vehicles.

Benches removed from Harvey Milk Plaza by the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District.


Supervisors pass a park closure ordinance, making it illegal for those without shelters to sleep from 12am-5am.


BART begins displacing, citing, and arresting homeless people resting inside stations.