San Mateo County ordinance would push homeless to services with threat of misdemeanor

A new ordinance in San Mateo County aims to push those without homes to access services with the threat of a misdemeanor charge. County supervisors see this as encouragement, not punishment. The homeless disagree.

On the streets of San Mateo County, unhoused residents are worried that, thanks to a new ordinance, their situation is about to be called a crime.

"I mean why make it a crime when they force you into that situation?" said Calvin Peace, who has been unhoused for 16 years. He adds, "They don't do nothing to help you really. They say this, and they say that, but they don't do it."

The initiative is called Hopeful Horizons. And the hope is to force those unhoused to access services.

"So far, the hard-to-reach population is just refusing to get help," says Warren Slocum, president of the San Mateo County's board of supervisors.

The idea is that they are given warnings. And if they don't vacate their encampments within 72 hours, they get a misdemeanor citation that sends them to court. The court can then divert them to services.

Slocum, who introduced the measure, doesn't see this as punishment.

"I just totally don't agree with that at all. It's not a matter of criminalizing. It's a matter of a way, a path to encourage people to get the care that they need," he says.

Advocates aren't so sure. They worry that some may be scared of the legal system and move out of the country instead.

"The use of law enforcement is really troublesome to us…also there's just really not enough shelter beds and shelter beds are only temporary. So we have a lot of concerns with how the ordinance is structured," says Kiana Simmons, lead organizer with the Housing Leadership Council.

Right now, the ordinance only applies to unincorporated San Mateo County and its 44 unhoused residents. But they're hopeful all their cities will follow suit.

Those experiencing homelessness think there must be a better way.

"There's more than one way to help a person. But until you understand what that person's needs are, then you can help them better. But don't make something a crime that's not a crime," says Peace.

The supervisors' vote was unanimous in favor of the new ordinance. However, it will get one more reading before it's officially passed.