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SF’s new homeless unit accused of heavyhanded police response

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(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Homeless advocates and an advisory board on Monday raised concerns that the police are increasingly and more aggressively responding to calls about those living on the streets.

City officials earlier this year launched the Healthy Street Operations Center, which includes several departments including Public Works, Public Health and police. It operates seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and responds to calls made to 911, the Police Department’s non-emergency number and 311 requests that mention homelessness in some way.

However at a meeting of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board Monday, which serves as an advisory body to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, critics argued the unit is operating with little transparency and responding to the homeless with law enforcement, not services.

“Although HSOC is claiming that the police are the agency of last resort, that they will lead with services, HSOC relies primarily on SFPD officers and DPW workers,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told the board Monday. She added that they are “not just removing the structures but removing the people and no offer of services at all. That is the overwhelming majority of the time.”

The complaints raise concerns about the effectiveness of the HSOC’s strategy, with homeless advocates saying it may only be pushing homeless people from block to block. There are also concerns it is leading to criminalization of the homeless and the improper confiscation of their property.

“The appropriate response to the presence of a homeless person is a social services response … rather than confiscating people’s property illegally and pushing them half a block away,” Friedenbach said.

Del Seymour, co-chair of the board, said “That’s the question I’m getting from everyone. Why has homelessness become a police issue?”

HSOC was represented at the meeting by Sam Dodge, a Public Workers employee liaison officer for the Healthy Streets Operations Center.

Board members expressed some frustration that their requests to have Police Commander David Lazar, who oversees the police response at the center, or Mohammed Nuru, the head of Public Works, attend their meetings to address HSOC have gone unheeded.

Dodge said that as a result of a recent meeting with homeless advocates, officers and public works employees received increased training around handling of belongings and the rights of the homeless.

He said that resources like the Homeless Outreach Team alone cannot respond to the hundreds of calls coming in and the point of HSOC was to create a citywide response along with a central point of accountability. “Part of this idea is to really stretch out the narrow resources we have,” Dodge said. He also said the effort was meant to create a more strategic and coordinated response to the calls.

“Often times it is an officer that’s available,” Dodge said. “That does not mean it’s an enforcement action. It’s kind of often an assessment action. A certain high percentage of these are ‘gone on arrival.’”

Dodge said the unit receives about 2,000 to 2,500 requests for service a week and about 70 percent are responded to within 48 hours.

A breakdown of those calls was provided by Dodge for one week. They include 1,119 reports of encampments with people living in them, 117 calls for blocked sidewalks, 71 calls for loose garbage, 53 calls for cart pickup, 26 calls for human waste, 16 calls for bagged items, 12 calls for encampments without people, 10 calls for homeless in transit shelters, nine call for mattresses and eight calls for furniture.

Dodge said their policy allows them to clear sidewalks or structures. “If there is a need for a rapid clearing of a structure or sidewalk then we are able to do that,” he said.

Kelley Cutler, a board member, said HSOC is engaged in an aggressive strategy. “It seems pretty clear that’s what’s going on,” Cutler said. “That folks are being targeted and there aren’t the outreach workers to actually be helping people.”

Seymour suggested board members should take the concerns about HSOC to the Police Commission, which has oversight of the Police Department, and the Board of Supervisors.

“There should be no tents in this city, but until we get housing there is going to have to be,” Seymour said.

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