Homeless app creator says city is stonewalling him

The CEO of a nonprofit that created a street response app being used in the Tenderloin to help those living on the street said he has hit a “stonewall” with The City in his efforts to expand its use throughout San Francisco.

Neil Shah, CEO of homeless response app Concrn, told the San Francisco Examiner that their three-year old service could more effectively help those living on the street, but The City isn’t listening.

His frustration is evident in emails exchanged with city officials where he complains about the lack of response from The City and says he feels like he is being bounced around from one city department to another.

“Homelessness, mental health and substance abuse issues are like a hot potato that could be embraced rather than relegated to the existing status quo,” Shah wrote in one July email to a Public Works official, adding that the lack of city response to his proposal is a “fundamental reason why we are in the public health and public safety crises you see when walking down Market [Street.]”

Shah’s effort comes at a time when homeless advocates have raised concerns over ramped up police enforcement against homeless persons and highlighted inadequate services, such as not enough Homeless Outreach Team workers or beds for those suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues.

Shah has submitted proposals to Police Chief Bill Scott and Jeff Kositsky, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

But Kositsky said Friday he has no immediate plans to incorporate the app service into the department.

“The concept is a sound one if it can be scaled up,” said Kositsky, noting that he has the app on his phone.

Concrn uses their online app via smartphones to receive reports of those in need. Upon receiving the reports, they dispatch their responders who de-escalate situations and connect people to city resources. Their responders are residents who themselves are formerly homeless or coping with their own mental health issues. Concrn trains them to handle those in crisis situations.

Kositsky agreed that the best response to those living on the street is “not the police, it is an outreach worker,” and noted that The City is looking to hire more outreach workers and behavioral health experts.

“I hope they will continue to expand,” he said of Concrn. “They are still a new organization. I believe they could definitely benefit from increased capacity building and private support.”

Shah told the Examiner it would take both public and private dollars to scale up. Concrn has relied upon a series of grants for funding.

“Our mission is to activate communities to respond to their unhoused neighbors more humanely,” Shah wrote in separate July email to the same official “We give people an option besides 311, DPW, or 911 that more appropriately handles the environmental concerns.”

Shah said he has met with Scott and submitted a 12-week pilot proposal. That Aug. 21 proposal requested $14,973 in funding for two “dedicated Concrn responders for the Tenderloin district, Thursday through Sunday.” They would work six hours, four days a week at $20 per hour.

“Services for homeless and extremely low-income people with mental illness and substance abuse issues in San Francisco are under resourced and unable to meet the rising need,” Shah wrote in the proposal.

“Tenderloin beat cops would download the app and “in circumstances when the neighborhood police are called upon to respond to a homeless or marginally housed person in behavioral dysregulation, they can use the app to call for a Concrn peer responder as a trusted alternative backup,” the proposal said.

Since submitting the proposal, however, Shah told the Examiner that effort has hit a “stonewall.”

SFPD spokesperson David Stevenson confirmed Concrn contacted the department about behavioral health outreach, but didn’t comment on the specific proposal.

“SFPD remains receptive to diverse approaches to issues affecting the well-being and safety of the people of our City,” Stevenson said in an emailed statement.

Last year, the San Francisco Examiner observed Concrn’s operation in the Tenderloin.

One of Concrn’s responders, Matthew Dudley, a longtime Tenderloin resident, said at the time that “the police seem to have an inhumane way of responding to a lot of these things.”

“I am always checking with myself that I am treating someone the way I would like to be treated no matter what situation they are in,” Dudley said. “I can’t say that I see everyone else dealing with our neighborhood the same way.”

He recalled that “when I was young there were the Guardian Angels” in the Tenderloin. He noted that they had an impact from standing around and just using their presence. “We are probably the most hands on that I’ve seen doing this kind of work,” he said.

Last month, when the Local Homeless Coordinating Board was holding a hearing on the concerns about ramped up enforcement against the homeless, Shah called on the public to stop calling 911 and 311 on the homeless and instead use Concrn. He added, “This is not a promotional video” about the nonprofit.

Shah told the board that The City’s homeless response “at this point it’s not coming from the place of dignity. Not for the people on our streets.”

That dignity is what Dudley spoke of.

“I’d like to think of myself more of just a responder but I’m like a counselor,” he said at the time. “It’s important to find people where they are and actually talk to them and deal with them.”

Believe it or not it de-escalates all kinds of situations if you can actually be where they are. Most of them just want to talk. Sometimes it’s yelling instead of talking. But once they are heard all of a sudden they are better.”

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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