Panhandling in San Francisco

I would like a potted history, by a researcher familiar with the

milieu, of panhandling in downtown San Francisco. How did it come to

be so tolerated? Is there an active political movement in its support?

Do some citizens and visitors find it as unpleasant as I do?

One thought on “Panhandling in San Francisco

  1. Hi.

    Two web sites, of opposing viewpoints, provide a broad overview of the

    chronology of San Francisco's homeless problem.

    Coalition on Homelessness Timeline

    "Willie Brown Shows How Not to Run a City" by Brian C. Anderson and

    Matt Robinson, City Journal, Autumn 1998:

    In a nutshell, the homeless controversy in San Francisco dates back

    more than a decade. During the term of office of Mayor Art Agnos

    (1988-92), certain policies were adopted that resulted in increased

    numbers of homeless individuals living on the streets and in public


    Until 1988, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) regularly

    "swept" places like Golden Gate Park and Civic Center, using

    "anti-camping" laws to clear out homeless individuals residing in

    those places. In 1988, however, the SFPD adopted a "Rights of

    Homeless" bulletin that marked a shift in strategy in dealing with the

    homeless. Large numbers of homeless individuals were allowed to

    temporarily reside in Civic Center Plaza, which would later be dubbed

    "Camp Agnos."

    This Google search displays web pages about Camp Agnos:


    In 1992, Frank Jordan, a former police chief, replaced Art Agnos as

    S.F. mayor. Jordan promised a new approach to the homeless problem.

    Launched in 1993, Jordan's matrix program had two elements: (1)

    police-issued tickets to the homeless for such things as "aggressive

    panhandling" and public drinking; and (2) programs designed to provide

    services to homeless individuals. It was the first prong of the

    Matrix program that generated the most controversy. Homeless rights

    advocates argued that "panhandling" was free speech protected by the

    1st Amendment. For more information about the Matrix Program, visit

    links displayed by this Google search:


    Matrix was generally considered a failure and Frank Jordan was tossed

    out of office in favor of current mayor, Willie Brown. The Matrix

    Program was officially scrapped, and Matrix tickets were dismissed.

    However, homeless rights advocates believe that little has changed

    during Brown's tenure and that his policies are essentially similar to

    Jordan's. Brown's critics on the right generally agree that the

    homeless problem has not improved substantially.

    As to the second part of your question, yes, there is an active

    political movement that supports the rights of the homeless in San

    Francisco. Groups such as the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness

    and Food Not Bombs point to inadequate social services and the high

    cost of living in S.F. as root causes of homelessness. Arguing that

    being homeless should not be considered a crime, these groups actively

    oppose police and business efforts to remove homeless people from the


    San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness:

    Food Not Bombs:

    As to the third part of your question, yes, many S.F. residents and

    tourists do express negative views about the homeless. See this

    Associated Press article, "San Francisco Full of the Homeless" by

    Michelle Locke from August 9, 2001:

    Furthermore, a January 2002 poll indicated that the homeless problem

    and affordable housing were the two top concerns of S.F. voters. As

    such, politicians such as Supervisor Gavin Newsom are advocating new

    strategies aimed at reducing both panhandling and the number of

    homeless people sleeping on the streets. See this article, "Newsom's

    plan for homeless finds favor," by Ilene Lelchuk (January 20, 2002) in

    the S.F. Chronicle:

    All sides would probably agree, though, that San Francisco's

    homelessness problem is unlikely to be solved in the near future.

    I hope this helps.

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