A Homeless Outreach Team member speaks with homeless people along Jones Street in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A Homeless Outreach Team member speaks with homeless people along Jones Street in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Breed proposes another street outreach team to divert calls away from police

San Francisco would launch a new street outreach team to respond to “well-being check” calls instead of law enforcement under a proposal by Mayor London Breed to further move The City away from having police officers respond to those with mental health issues and the homeless.

Late last year, The City launched the Street Crisis Response Team, a pairing of behavioral health professionals and paramedics, to respond to non-violent emergency calls about those in a mental health crisis.

Now Breed, who is calling the SCRT a success, wants to launch the Street Wellness Response Team to respond to calls for assistance for “well-being checks.” In 2019, there were about 18,000 911 and 311 calls for a “well-being check,” city officials said. The SCRT responds to non-violent emergency calls for a “mentally disturbed person,” of which there were more than 10,000 911 calls in 2019.

The two teams would work together.

Breed announced she will propose the new outreach effort in her two-year city budget proposal, which she must introduce to the Board of Supervisors for review by June 1. It would cost $9.6 million to fund five wellness teams over two years, with the first team to launch by January 2022 and all five by April 2022 — if the board approves of the plan.

The wellness teams will work 12-hour shifts and include paramedics with the Fire Department and Homeless Outreach Team members from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. They would drive around in a Fire Department vehicle. The focus would be on those who are not in an acute behavioral health crisis but may require immediate attention such as those with visible wounds, sleeping or lying down or inappropriately clothed for the weather. They could be connected to services.

“Many calls to 911 or 311 about someone who appears to need help on our streets don’t require an armed police response, and often the services and care people need would be best provided by a paramedic or outreach worker instead of a police officer,” Breed said in a statement.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who chairs the board’s Budget and Finance Committee, said The City’s response to homelessness remains “disjointed.”

“If these street wellness teams finally can support an effective, trained, professional response to homelessness that’s available in real time, I’m all for it,” Haney said. “I’ll look forward to learning more about this particular model.”

Homeless advocates have for years pushed for an alternative to a police response for those living on the streets and most recently have proposed a plan they call the Compassionate Alternative Response Team.

“We are in support of developing an Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) where instead of sending police to respond to homeless complaints we have a community led response of extensively trained well paid peers to address community needs — funded by reallocating funds from jails, police and sheriff — and we are hoping this proposal gets us closer to that goal,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Shireen McSpadden, Breed’s newly appointed head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the new outreach wellness teams would “provide dignified and compassionate care to people experiencing homelessness on our streets and in our neighborhoods.”

The first Street Crisis Response Team launched in November 2020 in the Tenderloin and has since expanded to four teams serving the Tenderloin, the Castro and Mission, the Bayview, and the northeast part of The City including the waterfront and Chinatown. At full implementation there will be a total of six teams providing a 24/7 response. The SCRT program is budgeted at $13.4 million next fiscal year.

Between November and April, the street crisis teams responded to more than 700 calls with an average response time of 15 minutes; 82% of the calls came from 911 dispatch, amounting to a diversion of 19% of the total “mentally disturbed person” calls received by dispatch during this time citywide. In 53% of the responses, the issue was resolved on the scene, while in 37% of the responses the person was transported to a hospital or other facility.

Breed said the results show “the early success” of the effort.

The street teams were called for in Mental Health SF, The City’s initiative to reform its response to those with mental illness living on the streets. Breed also committed last year to increasing alternatives to having the police respond to non-violent calls for service following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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