This Pizza Citation Highlights the 'Crime' of Being Homeless

April 4th 2017

Samantha Cowan

City officials attempting to rid their streets of homeless residents have resorted to spiked pavement, relentless sprinklers, and tickets for those sitting or sleeping outside. However, one citation issued to a homeless man in San Francisco is getting a lot of attention due to his unusual offense.

A homeless man was cited for eating pizza at a San Francisco bus shelter in March.

He was cited for violating section 640 (b)(1) of the California criminal code: “Eating or drinking in or on a system facility or vehicle in areas where those activities are prohibited by that system.” The offense comes with a punishment of up to a $250 fine and up to 48 hours of community service.

“You wouldn’t think about [eating pizza in public]. You’re waiting for a bus or hungry, you have a slice of pizza,” Kelley Cutler, a Human Rights Organizer for San Francisco’s Coalition for Homelessness, told ATTN:. She met the man last week when he came into the coalition seeking support.

Cutler described the man as elderly, “super polite,” and rather embarrassed to have received the citation. Cutler said had never seen or heard of a citation for eating in public before, since even though ating on public transit is not allowed, it's not ordinarily a ticketed offense.

Lighted Bus Shelter

While a pizza ticket is previously unheard of, other quality of life citations are not.

Quality of life citations refer to the policing of typically non-criminal activities like panhandling, sitting or sleeping in a public place, and other so-called “nuisances.” Between October 2006 and March 2014, the San Francisco Police Department issued more than 50,000 quality of life citations for quality of life crimes, according to report compiled by the Coalition.

According to the Coalition’s report, the city has more ordinances criminalizing homelessness than any other city in the Golden State. Along with laws against sitting or sleeping in public places, the city has even removed public benches from the downtown area to dissuade homeless people from lingering. As a result, bus station benches one of the few places people are allowed to sit.

Homeless person in San Francisco

The officer who approached the man eating pizza was attempting to “move him along,” Grace Gatpandan, a San Francisco Police Department spokesperson, told the San Francisco Examiner. “That citation won’t go anywhere,” she added.

Luckily, failure to pay a citation won't result in an arrest warrant—a year-old change in policy welcomed by homeless advocated in San Francisco. However, it’s not as if this man can just toss out the ticket and forget about it. The fine can increase or go to collections if it's not paid. According to Cutler, judges will throw out the citation if a person proves that they’ve received 20 hours of support services. This means the person will likely first go to the courthouse to change their court date, get services and proof of services, and then return to court.

San Francisco PD car

Cutler and the Coalition are working with police officers to issue verbal admonishments rather than written citations.

“There’s some thought that [these tickets] encourage people to connect with services, but that’s just not the case,” Cutler said. “Social workers, instead of spending the resources and time they have working on doing the housing and finding employment, they’re having to spend it working on the citations.”

So why issue a citation when the city won’t receive money and it detracts from other social services?

“Going through this process and having to jump through all the hoops is the punishment in a way,” Cutler said.