Reducing the number of tents on the street does not reduce the number of homeless people — it just means fewer homeless people have shelter. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Police stop offering one-night shelter stays to homeless after realizing ‘it doesn’t work’

On Guard column header Joe

One-night shelter stays that San Francisco police offer the homeless have been criticized as “not fair” and ineffective.

Instead of offering a more humane 30-days in a shelter, or even a solid week, the San Francisco Police Department has in the past offered homeless people a single, solitary night in a shelter — to satisfy legal requirements — and threatened them with citations if they said no.

So, can you guess the newest entity disparaging one-night shelter offers?

No, it ain’t the controversial Coalition on Homelessness, who have long opposed the practice. Nor is it a bevy of progressive activists wielding protest signs (though surely, many would agree).

The new critic is the San Francisco Police Department.

The cops ended the practice of offering one-night shelter stays just a few weeks ago, according to Cmdr. David Lazar, who heads up the Healthy Streets Operations Center, or HSOC, a coalition of San Francisco agencies that team up to address homelessness in The City. (Though that will soon end pending his promotion to Deputy Chief next month …)

Lazar was speaking Wednesday night to the San Francisco Police Commission, in a hotly-anticipated hearing on HSOC and its practices, which the Coalition on Homelessness has critiqued.

“We as a Police Department saw the one-day (offer) wasn’t effective. It wasn’t fair for people, and we started saying no” to shelter offers that were only good for one day, Lazar told Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus.

Commissioners rightfully demanded data on how effective HSOC could be, but none were on fire quite like DeJesus. She coolly pelted Lazar with question after question, a verbal pugilist hungry for cold hard facts.

She asked for “a hard number” on how many people who are homeless, who are then sheltered for a single night, or seven nights, or thirty, eventually return to the streets.

It seemed as if Lazar saw this question coming.

“We’re going to stick to Navigation (Centers),” he said, when police offer solutions for people living on the streets. Of the one-night stays, he said, “it doesn’t work.”

Lazar practically sounded like an activist. But he was talking sense.

Kerry Abbott, from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told DeJesus the rationale: Even for seven-day beds, “what we’ve found” are many don’t engage in services. That only happens in long-term stays.

But sadly, The City lacks the resources to offer many longer-term beds. And if cops, and all the myriad partners of HSOC, are being asked to get people off the streets, Lazar said they’ll need more shelters with long-term stays to do so.

They need back-up.

For now, Petra answered, “I commend you on that,” for no longer offering bogus one-day shelter stays.

But that was a bright spot for HSOC amid a meeting filled with heated critiques.

Police commissioners repeatedly asked for data on homelessness outcomes that HSOC members did not have on hand.

HSOC was also lambasted for destroying tents when no other shelter is available. Police Commissioners then questioned whether or not HSOC — in this case, specifically the police and Public Works employees — also destroyed belongings of homeless people inside tents when those people were off waiting in lines for food, or shelter.

Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said he went out with police from HSOC to see how they handled tent encampments.

“I thought the officers I was with were genuinely good people and cared about the people they interacted with,” he said. “But I never saw any of the other social service departments. I did see shelters being taken away from people.”

The hits kept coming.

DeJesus asked Lazar for recent data on citations against homeless people.

That’s a crucial point because it’s not just the Coalition on Homelessness that critiqued the practice of “criminalizing” the homeless, but the Department of Justice, in a statement it filed in 2015. The DoJ wrote, “if a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

That sentiment is being debated after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision which has found cities must offer “adequate” shelter before citing against a person who is homeless. That may mean San Francisco is legally bound to offer more services than it has been before piling up citations on people who likely can’t pay them anyhow.

Lazar had data on hand only through 2017.

He apologized, and offered to come back with numbers after doing his “homework.”

Lazar and HSOC staffers from various departments did share highlights commissioners seemed impressed by. The number of tent encampments in San Francisco has dropped dramatically since HSOC’s formation, for instance. Defined as sites with more than six tents together, there were roughly 17 such locations in July 2018, but only two sites in January 2019.

And the number of tents with people living in them citywide dropped from 560 in July 2018 to roughly 341 in January 2019.

But there’s something a bit off putting about that data, said Chris Herring, a UC Berkeley sociology doctoral student, who spoke to the Police Commission on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness.

The number of people on San Francisco’s streets has gone up, not down. And the number of shelter beds in San Francisco has not risen significantly, especially with the recent closure of some Navigation Centers.

So fewer tents on the streets means simply that — fewer tents, he said. That leaves a greater chance that those sleeping directly on concrete may suffer health consequences for living there, he said.

“We can all do the math of understanding what’s going on here,” Herring said. “We’re taking people’s shelter away.”

Herring’s pointed critiques may have lit a bulb over Police Commission President Bob Hirsch’s head.

“Do you two talk?” he asked Lazar about the Coalition on Homelessness.

Hirsch may as well have asked if Muhammad Ali and George Foreman “talk.”

HSOC is formed of government agencies that have publicly, privately, in writing, and verbally, sparred and spatted in various forms with the Coalition for years.

SFPD Chief Bill Scott interjected, adding that various department heads recently agreed to the Coalition on Homelessness joining their discussions.

Hirsch said, “can that happen please?” As far as ideas go, “seems like an obvious one to me.”

In the back of the room, Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness grinned like the Cheshire Cat.

One last thing: More answers on all of these vexing questions may come soon.

If you’d like some yourself, on Aug. 20, at Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library main branch, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board will discuss HSOC and its practices from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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