Mayor London Breed has called for a pilot Street Crisis Response Team that would respond to 911 calls for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. 
Kevin N. Hume/
S.F. Examiner

Mayor London Breed has called for a pilot Street Crisis Response Team that would respond to 911 calls for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. Kevin N. Hume/ S.F. Examiner

Advocates propose model for community-based response to homelessness

Plan to divert calls from police could save as much as $11 million, group argues

Community advocates unveiled a plan Tuesday that they say would reduce police responses to homelessness and save millions annually — if it is fully funded.

Under the Compassionate Alternative Response Team proposal, or CART, calls related to homelessness and behavioral health would be rerouted from police and first responders to a new hotline with a 24/7 staff of social workers behind it. It would be implemented by a non-government organization and staffed with people who have experienced homelessness themselves.

Presented by a coalition of community groups, Police Commission members and city departments on Tuesday, the plan recommends CART staff to respond to calls with dispatch codes regarding a mentally disturbed person, well-being check, select sit/lie violations, trespassing, aggressive panhandling and suspicious people.

The hotline would respond to someone attempting suicide when occurring on the street.

“This really came out of wanting to create a compassionate alternative to homelessness,” said Sam Lew of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, speaking at a press briefing on the proposal Tuesday. “Police have been the main response to homelessness, which we know is ineffective, which we know is brutal and violent to those living on our streets.”

Advocates estimate the plan would cost $6.8 million annually, and could save $11 million annually. Policing homelessness is expensive; a 2016 Budget and Legislative Analyst report found that it carried $20.6 million in associated costs in 2015.

The 74-page CART plan has been in development since the Police Commission in January 2020 passed a resolution calling for The City to pursue a new approach for helping homeless people, led by health professionals rather than police. The resolution came months before nationwide calls to defund the police reached a fever pitch.

Community groups including the Coalition on Homelessness and Mother Brown’s Dining Room, as well as the Department of Public Health and Police Commission, informed the community model.

Broadly speaking, city officials are in agreement that police should not be handling every type of call for service.

In November, Mayor London Breed announced a pilot program to launch a Street Crisis Response Team that takes 911 calls made for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Once the Budget and Finance Committee releases around $2 million currently on reserve for the program — which is expected to take place in February — the Department of Public Health will put out a request for a proposal to use the funds and pick the winner in March. That program is expected to be implemented in May.

While the San Francisco Police Officers Association has opposed police budget cuts, the union agreed to divert 17 specific types of non-violent or non-criminal calls for service to non-law enforcement or mental health professionals while negotiating for raises last November.

Advocates speaking at a press briefing Tuesday recommend reallocating funds from the San Francisco Police Department budget for the program, as it will have roughly 65,000 fewer calls to respond to once the community model is implemented. None of the program funding should be taken from current funding for homelessness that addresses housing and treatments, they argued.

The CART proposal cites a 2015 study from the Coalition on Homelessness and University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center that found 70 percent of homeless respondents had been told to move on from a public space, 46 percent had belongings taken from city officials and 12 percent were offered limited services. The study also found that homelessness occurred at higher rates among Black unhoused San Franciscans than their white counterparts.

Advocates also recommended repealing the sit/lie ordinance, which allows officers to cite anyone sitting or lying on the street at night, and the Healthy Streets Operation Center, established in 2019, which they say has led to increased policing of the homeless.

The brother of Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless man fatally shot in the Mission who experienced an apparent mental health crisis, was among those endorsing the plan Tuesday.

“Luis would be alive today if he had received a compassionate response from our community,” said Jose Gongora Pat, who has also experienced homelessness, in Spanish translated by Adriana Camarena. “The community can do a better job than the police. I ask for a change to achieve what the police will never be able to achieve, to treat people without homes as dignified human beings.“

SFPD was unable to provide a response by press time.

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