Thursday, April 9, 2009

Chronicle's Nevius: An Unlikely Supporter for the Community Justice Center

This morning's Chron includes an article by C. W. Nevius, reporting about yesterday evening's Community Justice Center informational meeting at Glide Memorial Church. His description of the meeting depicts a typical San Francisco scenario: people with different agendas speaking past each other, not to each other, thinking how to shoot down a project without understanding what it is about.

The real failing is that the backers of the court haven't convinced the neighborhood that the effort is worthwhile.

Instead, at the meeting there were accusations that the Community Justice Center is part of a plan to rid the Tenderloin of poor people, build tall luxury apartment buildings, and encourage the police to arrest anyone on the street who looks shabby.

"It's just the opposite," sputtered Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn, who is presiding over the Justice Center this week while Commissioner Ron Albers is on vacation. "There is not a single case charged here that wouldn't have been charged at the Hall of Justice. The difference is, here they can go upstairs and qualify for services."

The court's director, Tomiquia Moss, was stressing that the court had heard more than 100 cases, and that they'd gotten 40 individuals into services, such as drug and alcohol treatment.

"And as far as this huge conspiracy to wrangle the poor out of the neighborhood," Moss said, "I really disagree with that."

Not that anyone from the opposition was listening. Activists wanted to know what the court was doing to end homelessness and why the money for the court - most of which comes from federal grants and can't be used for other purposes - isn't being used for building more shelters and housing.

Oh Boy.

The fact is, the people behind the Community Justice Center - people like Moss, Albers and the myriad social workers - have long and distinguished records of helping the homeless. So how did they get to be the enemy?

"I think people expect that there is never going to be a solution," Moss said. "So they keep complaining."

Now, it may be that the court won't ultimately work. It is just a pilot program. But I can tell you this - simply complaining is a dead end.

I've been following Nevius' commentary on the situation in the Tenderloin for quite a while, and I often disagree with him; when he reported about a homeless man found dead in the San Francisco public library, and linked this tragedy to his defense attorneys successfully battling his quality-of-life offense citations, I fumed for days. But this time, I think, he is right on the money. Nevius understands something that strikes me as very basic: If you have to choose between appearing more-righteous-than-thou and doing the right thing, it's a no-brainer. One of the regrettable features of our City politics (which are admirable in many other ways) is that, in this kind of debate, too many invariably opt for the former, even before obtaining enough information to make the choice. The conversation stops being about the issue at hand, and becomes an absurd contest of who is more enlightened and whose conspiracy theories are more extreme.

I constantly worry about criminalizing poverty, and am well aware of the many ways in which we do it every day. And, yes, in our flawed system, and within the constraints of a very imperfect social structure, there is a whole host of criminal offenses that act as proxy for social class (and, in many cases, race). However, rallying against people who are trying to make the situation better within this imperfect social structure, I believe, will not change matters. I would really like us to give this experiment a real shot before knee-jerk politics kick in and shoot down the efforts of people who are genuinely trying to do good and who have the qualifications and authority to do so.

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