Dan Morain

San Francisco jailers dumped a prisoner and Kathryn Steinle died

The Rev. Cameron Faller, right, and Julio Escobar of Restorative Justice Ministry conduct a vigil for Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco.
The Rev. Cameron Faller, right, and Julio Escobar of Restorative Justice Ministry conduct a vigil for Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco. The Associated Press

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos makes no apologies for signing the ordinance in 1989 that established his city as a sanctuary.

“We had refugees seeking asylum from right-wing death squads,” Agnos told me by phone.

Catholic clergy urged Agnos to protect people trying to escape dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s. The Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance unanimously. Later mayors expanded on the concept.

All that has flooded to the fore since July 1 when a bullet pierced Kathryn Steinle’s aorta, as the 32-year-old woman walked with her father along the San Francisco waterfront at Pier 14.

Police arrested Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times before. Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly and other conservative bloviators are playing the part of demagogue, blaming San Francisco’s liberal sanctuary policy for Steinle’s sad death. Clearly, San Francisco authorities should not have granted Sanchez “sanctuary.”

But the death of Kathryn Steinle has many causes, not the least of which is the abject failure to solve homelessness. Sanchez had been living on San Francisco streets since his release from custody on April 15.

The full story has not yet been told. But among the more astonishing revelations, the gun that killed Steinle belonged to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management agent, who left it unsecured in an unattended car in San Francisco, not locked in a lock-box in the trunk. The agent reported the gun had been stolen. San Francisco police didn’t investigate, until after the fatal shot.

In a jailhouse interview with KGO television in San Francisco, Sanchez said he found pills in a dumpster and took them on the day of Steinle’s death. He claimed he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench, and that it went off by accident three times.

Sanchez’s criminal history includes a conviction in 1991 for glue sniffing, and others related to heroin. Authorities charged him with felonies each time he was caught having crossed the border into the United States illegally. From 2011 until earlier this year, he had been imprisoned for an immigration violation.

Once Sanchez finished his federal prison time, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department requested that he be returned to face, incredibly, a 20-year-old warrant for a small amount of marijuana.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón championed Proposition 47, the 2014 initiative that eliminates jail terms for possession of drugs and, for that matter, possession of stolen property worth less than $950, including guns. Gascón’s deputy promptly dismissed the marijuana charge.

Because Sanchez had no violent criminal history, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi declined to hand him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead, he released Sanchez to the streets.

No shelter. No money. Definitely no attempt to rehabilitate him.

After five years behind bars, with a lifelong history of drug abuse, Sanchez was set free, free to sleep on the streets and scavenge for food and whatever else he needed. He was, in short, dumped.

“He didn’t receive any services. He didn’t have a penny in his pocket,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told me. “He was homeless, penniless and living on the streets.”

In 2013, my colleagues Cynthnia Hubert and Phillip Reese detailed how Nevada authorities routinely bused mentally ill people to California and other states.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera became incensed, and sued to recover the cost of caring for the 24 people sent to San Francisco by Greyhound from Rawson-Neal psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas. The case remains alive, after the U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to review Nevada’s petition claiming it was immune from the California suit.

Whether Sanchez is mentally ill remains to be seen, though no one who huffs glue is stable. But there is no real difference between the actions of the authorities in Nevada and those of San Francisco jailers.

“It is preposterous,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who tried to combat homelessness. “Why were we, as a society, incapable of a response to the inevitable reality that he would recidivate?”

San Francisco’s homeless problem worsened during Agnos’ tenure when the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed many of the old hotels that housed people living on the edge. In the months after the 1989 act of God, hundreds of them pitched tents in the plaza across from City Hall. Some called it Camp Agnos. It led to his defeat in 1991, after one term. Every mayor in every city has grappled with the issue.

Shortly before Steinle died, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders published an especially angry column describing muck left on downtown streets by her city’s homeless population. She noted that the city has a homeless budget of $167 million for an estimated 6,436 individuals, $26,275 per person, plenty. Bevan Duffy, Mayor Ed Lee’s homeless coordinator, told me he is unaware that Sanchez received any service.

“People fall through the cracks,” Adachi said. “It is particularly true for people who are undocumented. They are less likely to ask for help.”

Ambitious San Francisco politicians blame one another for Steinle’s death. Conservatives and Democrats including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who approved a sanctuary resolution when she was San Francisco’s mayor, criticize the current sanctuary policy. It’s easy to score points on illegal immigration.

The far more complex issue involves society’s failure to confront homelessness. Once San Francisco jailers dumped Sanchez, anyone could have guessed something terrible could happen.

Agnos, a onetime social worker, described Sanchez as “a hapless, marginal person seeking to survive.” Usually, we ignore such people. Every once in while, one grabs our attention. And we can’t walk by pretending not to see.

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