By Elina Lingappa
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Rory Fleming has published an article in The Filter Magazine titled, “Scapegoating of Chesa Boudin Reflects Ugly Attitudes to Unhoused People,” a piece which began to unpack the dialogue driving much of the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric taking San Francisco by storm.
“Perhaps nothing triggers some San Francisco residents more than District Attorney Chesa Boudin,” Fleming wrote, “[e]lected on a platform of criminalizing poverty and homelessness.”
District Attorney Boudin has found himself in the midst of enormous public scrutiny, much of which is misguided, supporters claim.
Not least among these efforts is a recall campaign headed by Richie Greenberg, a political commentator who has driven questionable rhetoric about San Francisco’s crime rates over the past two years.
More recently, reporter Dion Lim for the Washington Post falsely accused Boudin of dropping charges on a carjacking assailant, publishing a viral article spreading the misinformation.
Boudin has indeed been vocal in his support of decriminalizing the unhoused since his initial campaign for District Attorney.
However, as Fleming reveals in his article, the public rhetoric against Boudin’s policies is not only opposed to San Francisco’s progressive image, but it also speaks to a longstanding trend in the city’s history.
The housing crisis as it exists now came into being in the 1980s, according to NPR reporter and Freakonomics producer Greg Rosalsky, who wrote a recent article on this history of Californian policy impacting unhoused people.
During this time, the federal government cut much of the housing aid budget, as the state of California simultaneously slashed funding for social services and mental health care. Thus, residents who were already facing hardship found themselves with little to no safety net, and many became unhoused, Rosalsky argues.
The problem only worsened in the coming years.
San Francisco passed a rent control law in 1994, but landlords and homeowners soon found loopholes in the legislation. Evictions continued, and numerous units were taken off the market, decreasing the rental supply further.
San Francisco’s notorious cost of living acted as the nail on the coffin as big tech began to take hold more recently.
The city has reflected a study done by Zillow economists in 2018, which found that as residents spend more than a third of their income on housing, the population of unhoused people spikes.
In 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that a family making $117,400 in the San Francisco area is “low income,” because the median rent for a one bedroom apartment in the city is $3,700/month according to Fleming.
Unsurprisingly, as the cost of living skyrockets, so does the number of displaced and unhoused residents.
The current unhoused population is now over 8,000 in San Francisco, and an astounding 151,000 in the state of California in 2020.
The problem has reached an unprecedented scale.
At one point in 2018, a UN official, Leilani Farha, even commented on the state of the Bay Area in a report titled, “On Adequate Housing As a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living.”
“[The situation] constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment and is a violation of multiple human rights, including the rights to life, housing, health and water sanitation… The right to a secure home is a universal right under international human rights law. Lack of security of tenure can never justify forced evictions of those residing in informal settlements,” she wrote in her critique of Bay-Area policies.
“Most people on the streets are living with some sort of structural trauma,” she continued, meaning they have lost their job, can’t afford housing, been evicted by a landlord. The structural trauma causes deeply personal effects that can lead to living on the street that triggers drug use.
Despite this history and context, much of the hardship is met with misunderstanding by many Bay Area residents.
“Unfortunately, its liberal reputation aside, San Francisco has a strong conservative streak that has aligned against the working class, our unhoused neighbors, and the reforming of our criminal justice system,” local defense attorney John Hamasaki told Fleming.
In this fashion, many San Franciscans have taken to blaming the unhoused populations themselves, and calling for more robust tough-on-crime policies.
Thus, when District Attorney Chesa Boudin began speaking publicly about decriminalization, he was faced with substantial pushback.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be unhoused than the general public, and these demographics are disproportionately women, people of color, and those older than the age of 45.
These trends are not surprising, given that a criminal record has massive consequences on both employment and housing opportunities for previously incarcerated people, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
To complete the cycle, unhoused residents are far more likely to have encounters with law enforcement, even for actions as minor as sleeping on the street. Thus, we are left with what The Prison Policy Initiative calls a “revolving door” of incarceration, said the Alliance.
Most individuals experiencing houselessness have either been evicted, lost a job or are fleeing an abusive partner, according to studies noting drug abuse and criminal acts committed out of desperation only come after most people have been caught up in the revolving door—despite much of the right-wing rhetoric about unhoused people.
While the claim that unhoused people resist change and help has been popularized, aid is far more inaccessible than is often realized.
For example, according to The Conversation Magazine, many emergency shelters exclude specific populations, most commonly families, LGBTQ youth, and unhoused people with pets.
The magazine expands, “anti-vagrancy laws are counterproductive because they make it harder to escape homelessness.” Besides those directly experiencing houselessness, taxpayers suffer the consequences as well.
In 2015 alone, the city of San Francisco paid $20.6 million for arrests on the grounds of misdemeanor quality-of-life charges, totaling 125 arrests.
Chesa Boudin is not alone; politicians and District Attorneys nationwide have come to recognize the negative effects of tough-on-crime laws.
Nobody has exemplified this more than Boston District Attorney Rachel Rollins.
According to her campaign website, Rollins has promised to halt prosecution of 15 low-level crimes, including drug possession. Each of these low-level crimes disproportionately impacts the unhoused population by a huge margin.
Several academic sources have found Rollins’ policies to be beneficial, including Anna Harvey of New York University.
Harvey’s research found that defendants who were not prosecuted for lower-level nonviolent misdemeanors faced 65 percent fewer misdemeanor arrests in the following years and 75 percent fewer felony arrests than those who were prosecuted initially.
Thus, the rhetoric that Boudin is letting the city fall into turmoil falls short, according to those statistics.
Not only has research proven that alternatives to prosecution are more beneficial for public safety, but Boudin’s policies are not nearly as radical as Rollins’.
In fact, according to Fleming, Boudin only promised to halt prosecution on drug possession in the event of a pretextual car stop, a long way from the 15 crimes that Rollins has stopped prosecuting.
Elina Lingappa is a sophomore at the University of San Francisco double majoring in Sociology and Politics. She is originally from Seattle, Washington, and she is deeply passionate about the spheres of criminal justice and education equity.