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Homeless camp clearance efforts could get increased oversight

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City efforts to deal with tent encampments and street homelessness could get increased oversight after concerns were raised about the involvement of police in encampment clearances and a lack of coordination between city departments. (Examiner file photo)

Amid growing concerns, increased public oversight could be coming to San Francisco’s six-month-old command center for efforts to clear tent encampments and address other homeless issues.

The Healthy Streets Operations Center, which launched on Jan. 16, coordinates the responses of multiple city departments to street homelessness, including the Police Department, Public Works, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Department of Emergency Management. Staff meets daily Monday through Friday to discuss these efforts.

Sam Dodge, a Public Works employee who is part of the Healthy Streets Operations, told the Local Homeless Coordinating Board Monday that the collaboration has yielded “a lot of good results” and “there’s been noticeable progress on large scale encampments.”

But the reports of homelessness issues continue to pour in. “Right now the City of San Francisco receives about 2,700 requests a week around street homeless issues,” Dodge said.

He said that 26 percent of the calls are 911 or non-emergency police calls and the remaining 74 percent are 311 requests.

“1,600 weekly reports on encampments through 311 really boils down to 500 unique incidents that need to be addressed,” Dodge said.

But it’s the response to encampments that have raised concerns among those on the homeless coordinating board who seek more transparency around the command center’s operations. To that end, the board is expected to discuss at its next meeting in August creating a special subcommittee to oversee the Healthy Streets Operations.

Board members raised concerns over the involvement of police officers in the removal of tent encampments and their interactions with those living in them, the extent of cleaning Public Works does before removal and whether citations or arrests are occurring during the outreach work around encampments.

Brenda Jewett, a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, said that she visited a homeless encampment last month before it was set to be dismantled on June 27 and those living in the encampment had praise for members of the Homeless Outreach Team. However, they said Public Works crews were cleaning the streets repeatedly to the point that they considered it “harassment.”

“DPW’s street cleaning team was coming maybe two or three times a day, including like 2 in the morning,” Jewett said. “It didn’t sound like it was the policy that I understood.” She added, “I was just concerned that there had to be a lot of agitation in order to address it.”.

Dodge said he was aware of the concern and said there is a discussion about creating a memorandum of understanding among the city departments to set parameters around homeless encampment removals, including when the streets around them warrant cleaning.

Ralph Payton, co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, said that police involvement in the police encampment removals has become a larger issue in recent months.

“I know when the encampment removals started initially there was a plan for the police to stay a block or two away while we had social service employees really engage the encampment residents,” Payton said. “It seems of late that the police have taken a more active role in initially addressing the encampment residents.”

He added, “There’s been some negative experiences reported around what they see is increased police involvement, or sort of a change in the procedure.”

Dodge, however, said police have always been involved with the work around the encampments. “My experience has been that they have always been there for the resolution day encampment resolution teams. “I dont know of a time when they weren’t involved.”

But Del Seymour, co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, said he himself has noticed a difference in how the police are involved with encampments than initially conceived.

“The deal was that they were going to stay a block away for standby just in case there was some incident. Now they are completely involved in it,” Seymour said. “I’m not just hearing this from other people. I’ve seen it myself.” He added, “In the the past they were not grabbing people’s tents.”

Payton also requested that Dodge provide data about any arrests or citations that are occuring at encampment sites. Dodge wasn’t able to provide that information when asked at the meeting. Local Homeless Coordinating Board member James Loyce wanted to know if there was a specific grievance process by which someone in an encampment can go through similar to how they can file a grievance if they are treated unfairly in a homeless shelter.

Dodge said he would support the creation of an oversight committee “as a way to give information about what’s going on at the Healthy Streets Operations Center.”

“And for public feedback as well around the process.” Payton added.

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