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Criminal Justice

Crime and Homelessness Are Linked in the Minds of San Franciscans

Written by Jonah Owen LambResearch by Liz LindqwisterPublished Oct. 12, 2022 • 5:00am
Urban Alchemys Rodney Wrice patrols a homeless tent village a block away from San Franciscos City Hall in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, California Thursday January 27, 2022. | Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Crime and homelessness are top of mind for the San Francisco electorate, a majority of whom back so-called “tough on crime” measures paired with a stronger take on rehabilitation, according to a new poll by The Standard.

Some 29% of respondents to the survey conducted earlier this month identified homelessness and crime as the top two issues facing the city.

“I’ve been here 27 years and love San Francisco, but the crime and homelessness are seriously depressing,” said one respondent, who did not give their name. 

The majority of those polled supported tougher prosecution to deal with drug dealing and drug use while backing more compassionate carrot-and-stick tactics to address the problem. 

The fall SF Standard Voter Poll surveyed 944 registered voters in English and Simplified Chinese about their opinions on the city, its government and its challenges.

Despite the poll’s findings, violent crime rates in the city for robbery, burglary and some property offenses have fallen below already-low pre-Covid levels. But experts say people often unfairly link homelessness and poverty to an uptick in crime—even though data doesn’t support a connection between the two.

Sarah Gillespie—an analyst with the nonprofit think tank Urban Institute who has studied crime and homelessness in Denver—says much of the nation is encountering burgeoning homelessness alongside increases in some types of crime. 

“It’s so visible, and it’s increasing,” she said. “That’s the connection they are making. […] I think that people link homeless and crime because the only solution is to call 911.” 

Cambridge University’s Charles Lanfear, who studied homelessness and crime in Seattle, echoed Gillespie’s point. 

“We found little relationship between encampments and nearly all forms of reported property crime,” Lanfear said, “but a very strong link between reported property crime and complaints about homelessness.”

No matter the reality on the street, San Franciscans polled by The Standard said they feel less and less safe and think the city isn’t doing enough to solve its most pressing problems. 

About 64% of respondents say they feel less safe now than a year ago, and roughly half of them said they feel much less safe. 

When asked why they felt less safe, 71% cited homelessness as the main reason. At the same time, 78% of respondents said homelessness makes them feel sad—yet half said the issue has made them less progressive. 

The second most common reason for why people said they felt safety has declined, according to the poll, was because of interactions with people on the streets—even if those encounters don’t rise to the level of a crime.

San Francisco residents weigh in on the question of safety in video interviews conducted on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

A third of respondents who felt more unsafe than last year said their No. 1 reason was because they had been the victim of a crime. 

“As a woman in my twenties, I definitely [feel] less safe in SF than I did a year ago,” one respondent wrote. “I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I’m the victim of a crime. SFPD and the criminal justice system feel very ineffective lately, especially when dealing with repeat offenders. But at the same time, I love it here and there's no other city in the U.S. where I’d want to live.”

Nearly half of people who responded to the poll (47%) said they have changed their routines due to safety concerns, while 46% said they believe Muni and BART have become less safe. 

When it comes to solutions to crime and homelessness, though, the answers were mixed. 

A group of people sit behind Ken Reigenborn (center) on a sidewalk in the Tenderloin on July 4, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

For instance, 74% of those surveyed said narcotics users should be forced into court-ordered treatment after being cited five times for public drug use. And a slim majority back clearing homeless camps regardless of whether the people targeted in such sweeps have anywhere to go. 

Yet 69% of respondents said they back District Attorney Brooke Jenkins’ efforts to level murder charges against fentanyl dealers whose drugs lead to fatal overdoses.

“Homeless who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill will not voluntarily move to shelters,” respondent Garrett Gaudini said. “It is up to the government to force them to do so, and provide them [with] mandatory drug addiction and mental health treatment when they are there. Leaving them to wallow on the streets is not only a humanitarian issue, it is a health and safety hazard to everyone else in the community. The streets are disgusting and unsafe to everyone involved.”

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Despite support for more draconian enforcement, most poll respondents back some progressive diversion efforts, such as 62% who said their top policy solution was to deploy more civilian intervention teams to decrease overdose deaths and deal with mental health crises. 

Still, only 35% back Mayor London Breed’s efforts to open a site for sanctioned drug use. 

When it comes to law enforcement, 56% approve of Jenkins and a small plurality of respondents said they plan to vote for DA Jenkins this fall, but respondents expressed a less-than-positive view of the police. 

Just shy of a majority of those surveyed said they disapprove of the San Francisco Police Department

A poll respondent who did not want to be contacted for comment said he feels SFPD isn’t effective because of a “lack of police response when residents and business owners call for help.” He said he feels officers often shirk their responsibilities and simply tell people to fill out a form online when they have been the victim of a crime. 

“Police are not doing their job,” he added. 

But many still back giving SFPD more tools. 

For example, 59% support the recent move by the city to give police access to live video feeds. And 54% support hiring more officers. 

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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