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39,000 Matrix Cases Dismissed!

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Media1$street-sheet-cover-1996.jpg

Masthead of Street Sheet May 1996

History of Street Sheet

In December 1989, the Coalition on Homelessness began publishing a six-page newsletter, the Street Sheet, to share information with its membership and with the larger San Francisco community. In January 1991, the paper moved to a tabloid format, and expanded its circulation to 20,000. Currently, 35,000 copies are printed monthly, of which 30,000 copies are sold by homeless people as an alternative to panhandling; the remaining copies are mailed to subscribers and distributed to shelters.

The Street Sheet is both practical and polemical, and has two primary goals: first, to generate income for homeless vendors, who keep all proceeds from the sale of the paper, and make up to $1,000 a month; and second, to provide a perspective on homelessness that is not available in the mainstream media. The Street Sheet is written mostly by people who have had first-hand experience with homelessness; as a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, it also provides information on advocacy, direct action, and other efforts to alleviate homelessness.

Of the approximately 50 homeless newspapers that exist nationwide, the Street Sheet is the oldest, and is the only paper distributed free to vendors. The Street Sheet is also the only paper that does not accept government funding or any kind of advertising.

The Street Sheet provides homeless people with the opportunity to earn up to $1,000 each month to meet their immediate survival needs. Vendors receive 50 papers a day for a month from the Coalition on Homelessness office in the Tenderloin in the morning from Street Sheet Vending Project volunteers. Vendors keep all proceeds from their sales.

The Street Sheet educates the public on homelessness and provides a grassroots perspective on poverty and related issues that is not available from the mainstream media. By providing a forum for homeless people to voice their opinions and concerns, the paper destroys prevailing mythology: that homeless people are lazy, ignorant, and choose to be homeless. The Street Sheet has brought volunteers from business, government, and service organizations who join COH work groups and participate in advocacy to formulate constructive solutions to homelessness.

The Street Sheet is a forum for numerous styles and formats of expression. Many articles draw on individual writers' personal experience with homelessness; others are more advocacy-oriented, offering sophisticated critiques of policy and program developments. Almost all of the artwork and poetry appearing in the Street Sheet is produced by homeless or formerly homeless people. Occasionally, the paper features a Spanish-language section aimed at the predominantly undocumented homeless Latino population.

In 1993, the Street Sheet was awarded the prestigious Media Alliance Meritorious Achievement Award (MAMA); we also won an Excellence in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (1993-1994).

We won this one -- no, that would be these 39,000 cases!

The next time a cop comes up to you and wants to run your name for warrants, he can huff and puff and blow his own steam as much as he likes. But when he calls up your name on that Central Warrant Bureau (CWB) computer, there won't be any Matrix warrants to use as an excuse to haul your ass to jail.

On April 16, the Municipal Court granted the motion brought by criminal defense attorney Bobbie Stein to dismiss all Matrix tickets issued before February 22, 1996. District Attorney Terence Hallinan had helped organize the motion, and came to court himself to NOT oppose it.

As a result, all of the tickets for sleeping, camping, obstructing the sidewalk, sleeping in cars, failure to obey a sign (used for being in the park after hours), consuming alcohol in public ("open containers"), and trespass were dismissed. There were almost 39,000 cases, 37,000 of which had already gone to warrant.

We have always known that Matrix is a waste of police resources, and the cops never thought people could really pay the tickets. Seventy-six dollars is a chunk of change, and if you had it you sure as shit would not be sleeping in the park. The tickets were meant to harass, and allowed the cops to pick you up once the citations went to warrant. But the courts found the tickets a bureaucratic nightmare, and the sheriffs didn't much like paying the bills to put you up for this stupid BS either. At the end of January, Mayor Brown set up meetings between the COH, his office, and the police department, supposedly to develop a policy to end Matrix. These conversations went nowhere; the COH repeatedly requested an amnesty for existing Matrix warrants, and the City didn't promise anything.

On February 22, Mayor Brown wrote to Chief Lau stating that he was "supportive of an amnesty policy for homeless people who have warrants due to their inability to pay Matrix fines (i.e., camping, lodging, sleeping in parks or public, possession of shopping carts, etc.). He went on to say, "it is more important that police officers spend their time apprehending real criminals instead of arresting homeless people for warrants issued as a consequence of Matrix." The police then agreed to work with us to make the amnesty happen.

Shortly after this meeting, police department representatives and the mayor retreated from their previous level of cooperation, limiting their support for the amnesty to sleeping and camping tickets. But it was the District Attorney and the courts who had the juice to make the decision to purge the tickets, and the Coalition continued to work with them.

D.A. Hallinan looked at the proposed code sections and said that he would dismiss any tickets for open containers where there was no evidence -- and sure enough, not one of the 27,000 tickets given had any evidence to back it up. He then agreed to include the trespass and the disobeying park sign citations because we demonstrated that they were given almost exclusively to homeless people as a part of Matrix. The COH also argued that the tickets for urination in public should be dismissed, since there are insufficient public toilets and people are forced to piss in public. But Hallinan would not go there.

After much delay from all around, Judge Herbert Donaldson agreed to hear the case, and the Matrix tickets were officially dropped.

It's ironic. Even as you read this article and breathe a sigh of relief for the tickets that are wiped out, a cop steps up tell you to move on. (See StreetTalk article for a recent declaration showing continued Matrix enforcement.) We have been fighting for years to stop the Matrix program. It looks like we are going to have to continue that fight until the city comes up with some other way to address poverty and those of us who are forced to live in public spaces.



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