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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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News + PoliticsHousingA new approach to homelessness

A new approach to homelessness

Advocates release plan that involves taking primary response to calls away from the police.


After several months of planning, a group of public officials, mental health professionals, and unhoused people formally announced a set of recommendations for a city response to homelessness that doesn’t involve the police.

In a 74-page report released Tuesday, the advocates outline a two-component system that would redirect emergency and non-emergency calls involving homeless people to a team of trained dispatchers and first responders acting as a frontline response to homelessness, primarily staffed by unhoused and formally unhoused people. 

The Compassionate Alternative Response Team approach would also include a publicly available hotline.

The CART Street Response would create a “community-strengthening hub” made up of housed people with firsthand experience of homelessness who would receive training to more “compassionately respond” to crises experienced by unhoused people in their community.

The hotline would primarily handle C-priority calls, including those related to trespassing, sit-lie ordinance violations, homeless encampments, and reported sightings of “suspicious” people, as well as overflow 911 mental-health calls that have been rerouted to San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team.

That team was launched in November as a partnership between the Department of Public Health and the Fire Department using a hotline and outreach staff to respond to calls related to homelessness without involving police. 

One advantage of CART over SCRT according to proponents is that CART’s model is less costly than SCRT—SCRT involves teams of three doing outreach and working with behavioral health clinicians while CART only dispatches pairs of staff and directly employ mental health specialists.

The SF Police Department receives roughly 60,000 calls a year related to homelessness, and according to Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, police often lack the appropriate training to adequately respond to the needs of homeless people, particularly those experiencing mental health crises, and can only really tell them to “move along” rather than providing services and aid that CART staff could connect them to.

“How we have historically addressed [homelessness] has been terribly inefficient, not a good use of resources, and basically putting the wrong people into the wrong place at the wrong time, with a history of really negative consequences,” said Hamasaki.

Part of the reason that many calls related to homelessness are often handled by police, Adrianna Camarena, a writer and activist based in the Mission said, is because Healthy Streets Operation Center, which is the city’s primary hub for responding to calls related to homelessness, too often involves police.

The head of HSOC is an SFPD commander and 50 police officers were assigned to HSOC in 2018–resulting in police dispatches for calls related to homelessness, often resulting in “move along” orders or disassembling encampments, which can involve in seizure of personal property, such as medicine and wheelchairs.

“It ends up being some kind of balloon effect where police are always involved,” said Camarena.

Although the goal of CART is to eliminate HSOC, the SF Homeless Outreach Team would remain in place, focused more on case management and deferring responses to mental-health calls to CART. Deferring this responsibility to CART would also have the advantage of making sure that SF HOT would be able to more exclusive focus on case management and not be used to respond to complaints and conduct homeless sweeps at politically advantageous moments, such as during the Super Bowl during Ed Lee’s administration.

“[SF HOT] are working with clients, and then a mayor comes in and says ‘no I want you to shift gears. An example of that was how we had, during the Super Bowl, they had a whole bunch of people lined up for that early navigation centers where [homeless people] were so excited that they were going to be placed upon opening, and then the Super Bowl party came and they mayor directed them to switch gears and offer those spots to people along the Embarcadero where the Super Bowl was going to take place. That really eroded trust with the unhoused population,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Indeed, of the most important goals of CART is simply to resolve issues of trust between the city and services providers and unhoused people. Often, homeless people are subject to theft of property, including by police, and have negative experiences navigating San Francisco’s vast matrix of services, often ending up homeless again at the end of it all.

“This program is going to be really helpful…[unhoused people] need someone to talk to, someone to trust, that’s the main thing,” said Cindy Kenner, who has been unhoused for 15 years. “You don’t trust people out here, on the street, you don’t trust nobody. You never know what’s gonna happen. If I had this program a long time ago, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today, I’d have my own place.”

CART has yet to actually begin operations, as CART is still being coordinated between community stakeholders and organizations, members of the Board of Supervisors, and the Mayor’s Office. The soonest it could become operational is May 2021. You can follow CART at @CART_SF on Twitter for updates.

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  1. Gorn, the proposition controls how the money is to be used. Perhaps Breed is failing to allow that to take place. Or perhaps, this plan is where some of that money will go. Where do you get that it is being “negotiated in secret?” Because the mayor, and others who have so miserably failed are not included? It includes the Police Commission, the Public Defender’s Office, the Department of Public Health, and the Behavioral Health Commission. Why would it include failed, and yes even abusive agencies like Healthy Streets Operation Center, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. This is an attempt to deal with homelessness, not continue its abuse for political gain. I will give you credit, you are consistent in your defense of the indefensible.

  2. How much of Prop C $ is still sitting in the bank not earning much interest? Last I heard it was ~ $400m.

    Have any of those dollars been spent on substance and psych treatment and on housing?

  3. Why is a major public policy change like this being negotiated apparently in secret by lower level officials, Police Commissioners and private individuals and agencies?

    Are there ethical controls in place here to ensure that those who make policy do not financially benefit from it? Or is that a quaint concern?

  4. aogilmore, no, you clearly choose to be mean. We are dealing with human beings, not pigeons. People rarely choose to be homeless. But far too many believe they do. Yes, some become homeless because they make poor choices. Many more become homeless through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, many who are privileged think that anyone who winds up broke are at fault. They ignore all sorts of problems, that are beyond a persons control, as excuses to turn their back. So please, spare us the self-righteousness. You choose to be cruel. And yes, other cities have this problem, as bas, or worse.

  5. richmondman, addiction is consider a disease under the law, and forcing people to accept medical treatment is generally forbidden under the Constitution. And, once treatment is a waste of money and resources. It is difficult to successfully treat addiction when someone is motivate. It is likely to fail when the person is coerced.

  6. I wouldn’t exactly call it nothing, they’ve already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on it. I hate to be mean, but if you feed the pigeons all you get is more pigeons. Other cities don’t have this problem, at least not as bad.

  7. Might as well try something, because NOTHING isn’t working.
    Cops do nothing, 311 does nothing – except send you back to the cops. Who do nothing.
    90 day mandatory in-house treatment for meth heads would help.

  8. Might as well try something, because NOTHING isn’t working.
    90 day omandatory in-house treatment for meth heads would help.

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