February 26, 2024

San Francisco counts its homeless population once every two years, usually on a single night in January. The most recent “point in time count,” in 2022, recorded 7,754 homeless people, of whom 4,397 were the unsheltered people referred to in the lawsuit. While these numbers haven’t changed much since 2017, the total number of people who access homelessness-related services, such as food assistance and temporary housing, skyrocketed during the same period: In other words, more people are living in some kind of precarity. Compounding the problem are three factors that make homelessness seem, from the outside, as though it must be worse than before: fentanyl; social video sharing; and the post-pandemic emptiness of downtown San Francisco, a blank background against which encampments stand out starkly.

Civil-liberties groups have cheered the encampment ruling and Prop 47 as victories for humane policy. Law enforcement has criticized these changes. “That basic ‘move along or leave, or I’m going to cite you’ is kind of out the window,” a senior San Francisco police officer, who asked to be anonymous because he was not authorized to speak for the department, told me. “Cops naturally just go, ‘Well, why am I going to go out and make arrests that I know from the very beginning are never going to do anything?’”

When Doty came to San Francisco from Louisiana in the late fall of 2022, he found his way to the Marina, where he fell in with Roye and Buck. He pitched his tent near their encampment and often spent the day with them, mostly uninterrupted by police. Of the three of them, Doty struck Marina residents as the least disruptive presence. A clerk at the ExtraMile, a convenience store around the corner from Carmignani’s house, told me that Doty would sometimes steal food and sleep on the cement walkway outside the front door, but that he was not violent. Stefani received no complaints about Doty specifically. Alan Byard, a private patrolman hired by Marina residents to protect the area, told me that he encountered Doty on his rounds. “I’ve talked to him twice,” he said. “And he was nice to me.”

The preliminary hearing for the Doty case began in late May. To reach the witness stand in San Francisco Superior Court, Carmignani used a walker. Doty, seated at the trial table, wore a hoodie from which his tangled light brown hair cascaded. At first he seemed almost giddy to be the object of such attention — he would sometimes turn and smile boyishly at the press — but one day in the second week of hearings, he missed an appearance and was arrested, and from then on he sat quietly in an orange prison jumpsuit, his posture now slumped and his hair abruptly clean. (Doty has pleaded not guilty. He declined to comment for this article.)

An assistant district attorney, Kourtney Bell, put Carmignani on the stand first. In a slow, gravelly voice, Carmignani gave his version of April 5. That morning, three homeless people were camped in front of his parents’ house on Magnolia. (This was Roye, Buck and Doty.) From his dining-room window, Carmignani politely asked them to move. “I said: ‘My parents can’t get out of the house. Can you please move down the road?’” They did not. Carmignani and his mother each called 911, but the police didn’t show up.

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