‘Snitch app’ encourages residents to report homeless persons

A controversial mobile app introduced Thursday by Mayor Ed Lee allows residents to report homeless persons to San Francisco officials. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Residents can now report homeless persons to the city government with a new addition to the 311 mobile phone app, announced Thursday by city officials.

Mayor Ed Lee said the app is intended to better care for homeless persons who may be in need of immediate services. But one formerly homeless person, Darcel Jackson, saw it differently.

“It’s a snitch app,” Jackson said. “What they are doing is making residents police.”

Jackson is working on his own app with the help of those in the technology sector called see/me, which will allow homeless persons to have a list of resources and real-time information for services they can turn to for help.

The 311 homeless app is the mayor’s latest response to the homeless issue as the population has hovered at more than 6,000 for the past decade. The mayor said the app also responds to concerns from residents like Erica Sandberg, a personal finance writer, who gained attention for mobilizing her Nob Hill neighbors to more proactively call The City to report homeless issues.

“It is so upsetting to walk by people everyday on practically every block and say, ‘nothing I can do,’” Sandberg said. “I want it on everybody’s phone.”

But the Coalition on Homelessness called the app “silly” and said it was “counterproductive” to encourage residents to “complain about each other.”

The City should respond to the homeless population holistically with the input of those involved in the subject, said Bob Offer-Westort, speaking on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness. “It should be driven by need, not by complaints,” he said, adding that there was the possibility for increased citations and harassment through the 311 reports.

Homeless reports are already streaming in.

“Very violent person. Needs to be taken off the street. Has threatened numerous neighbors,” said one app user. Police were called, the person was gone on arrival and case was closed. Another complaint was about an encampment “blocking most of sidewalk on North side 15th street, just west of Minna.”

Sam Dodge, deputy director of the mayor’s homeless office, said, “It’s helpful to have services directed to where they are needed.”

Dodge also suggested calls could save lives. He said 40 to 60 homeless persons die annually in San Francisco and in his ongoing review of the cases he said there are times when the persons “were trying to figure out what to do, people died inadvertently.”

Barbara Garcia, director of the Public Health Department, said the reporting would lead to improved health care.

“I don’t believe criminalization is the direction that we are going. It is the direction of care,” Garcia said. “Every one of these individuals has a right to care.”

She noted that the department has increased staffing of its homeless outreach team, which will have a large presence in The City to respond.

The 311 mobile app has categories for request services, such as park requests, graffiti and potholes. On Thursday, a new category was added: “homeless concerns.” Subcategories include “well-being check (non-emergency),” “aggressive behavior (non-emergency),” “encampment,” and “clean up-shopping carts.” Users can upload photos and note the location among other descriptors.

The mayor didn’t promise a specific response time. But he said those of a more pressing nature like aggressive behavior would be given priority over cleanup.

“We are a compassionate city,” Lee said. “We care about people on our streets. We ought to be able to follow up on somebody that might look like they are in need of some help.”

Responders could include employees with the Department of Public Health, Department of Public Works and the Police Department.

Police Chief Greg Suhr said the app will assist his department in helping those before the forecasted “epic wet cold winter.”

“We have a lot of people that are on the ground,” Suhr said. “We need to make sure that everybody is taken care of.”

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