San Francisco Mayor London Breed acknowledged Aug. 16 that mental illness is one the biggest challenges the city is facing, in light of a recent attack by a homeless man that was captured on surveillance video and received widespread media coverage.
Earlier last week, Judge Christine Van Aken caused outrage when she allowed the release of Austin James Vincent, charged with attempted robbery, false imprisonment and two counts of battery for the Aug. 11 attack on a woman as she entered her Beale Street apartment complex.
“We are not doing him any favors by letting him back out into the streets, with no treatment, no help, no support. It’s just going to unfortunately happen again, and that’s part of the problem here,” Breed said.
“We have a system that is not necessarily working for the purpose of addressing what we know is really one of the biggest challenges that we are dealing with here in San Francisco: mental illness,” she said.
Earlier Aug. 16, however, during a hearing for Vincent in which he was not ordered present, Judge Christine Van Aken said that she initially had ordered his release based on his non-violent criminal history, which included one petty theft arrest in 2014, and under the condition that he receives treatment.
Vincent’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Saleem Belbahri, called Vincent a “model candidate” for having successfully enrolled in a temporary housing program and undergoing evaluation for treatment.
However, Van Aken said she only recently saw the surveillance video of the attack while at a restaurant and, because of the level of violence it showed, she ordered that he wear an ankle monitor to ensure he stays away from the area where the attack happened.
She also ordered prosecutors to give her a full copy of the video of the attack, which she said she will use going forward to assess any future public safety risks.
Van Aken had received harsh criticism for her decision to release him, with the San Francisco Police Officers Association calling for her to be demoted to traffic court.
Additionally, the victim in the case, who has identified herself as Paneez Kosarian, said on Twitter of Van Aken, “Clearly she is not fit for this position.”
Because the building where the attack happened is next to the location for the city’s SAFE Navigation Center, which is set to provide beds for as many 200 homeless residents, opponents of the center are using the incident to renew their plea to stop it from opening.
Safe Embarcadero For All, a group made up of residents and business owners in the city’s South Beach neighborhood, last month filed a lawsuit against the city in Sacramento County Superior Court seeking to halt the opening. The group also is seeking a temporary restraining order and stay to keep the development from progressing while the suit is being litigated.
“This violent attack by a homeless man amplifies our concerns,” said Wallace Lee, Safe Embarcadero For All board member, in a statement Aug. 16. “The proposed new homeless shelter hasn’t been built yet and our worst fears are being confirmed.”
Breed, however responded to the group, saying, “We have a real issue with homelessness and we have people who are sleeping on the sidewalks. Whether they are just basically down on their luck or struggling with an addiction, the sidewalks are just no place to be.
“We need to move forward on making sure that we’re able to building enough beds so that when we are trying to get homeless people off the streets, we have at least an immediate place to take them to evaluate their situation, and make a determination as to what’s the next best step for that person,” she said.
“Halting this building and shelter beds is not a solution and the plan is to do what we can to try and build as many as we possibly can so that we can address this issue, in a humane way,” she said.