Police Commission urges SF to address homelessness with health workers instead of cops

Resolution calls on Mayor London Breed, Board of Supervisors to pursue a new approach

Criticism over officers sweeping tent encampments off the streets when there is nowhere else for people to go has prompted the Police Commission to call for a transformation of San Francisco’s response to homelessness.

The commission unanimously voted Wednesday to support a resolution urging Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors to pursue a new approach for helping homeless people that is led by health professionals rather than police.

The resolution calls for the formation of a working group to find a model and funding for the new approach with input from various city agencies, homeless advocates and people with experience living on the streets.

Before the vote, Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said he has gone out with officers responding to homeless calls.

“It’s clear that they are well-intentioned, well-trained officers trying to deal with a situation that they were not the best qualified for,” Hamasaki said. “We need social support, social services, access to treatment, access to shelter.”

The effort already has the support of Supervisor Matt Haney, who said he would consider introducing legislation to convene the working group.

“I hear regularly from police officers that they feel our city has placed too much responsibility on them to respond to homelessness,” said Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market.

“We absolutely need 24/7 non-police responses to homelessness that include highly-trained clinicians and outreach workers,” he said. “This will also allow the police to focus more on public safety, which should always be their primary responsibility.”

At the Police Commission meeting, Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she helped draft the resolution over concerns about local governments “turning to the police to manage this humanitarian catastrophe.”

At best, Friedenbach said police officers can only move homeless people around the streets.

“We are relying on police officers to manage what is in essence a social problem,” Freidenbach said. “This response is neither effective, humane or appropriate. And now, it’s not even legal.”

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the ruling in Martin v. Idaho, in which an appeals court found that cities cannot criminally punish people for sleeping on the street when no other shelter is available.

The effort also comes days after a statewide task force formed by Gov. Gavin Newsom released a report calling for a legally enforceable mandate requiring cities to provide housing for homeless individuals.

In 2019, the point-in-time homeless count found there was an estimated 5,180 unsheltered homeless persons in San Francisco and 2,831 individuals in emergency shelters.

The City has plans to open 499 additional homeless shelter beds in the coming months, including 75 beds at 888 Post Street for Transition Aged Youth and up to 200 beds at the Upper Market SAFE Navigation Center at 33 Gough Street, according to the Mayor’s Office.

In 2018, San Francisco launched a new strategy to address homelessness and tent encampments known as the Healthy Street Operations Center.

The initiative was intended to improve coordination among city departments, like police and Public Works, and respond more effectively to complaints about tent encampments.

Homeless advocates have criticized HSOC for relying too heavily on police and not offering those in encampments long-term shelter beds.

“As homelessness continues to grow across the country, communities are increasingly turning to police to address the issue,” the resolution said. “Instead of helping people escape life on the streets, this creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from corner to corner.”

Also on Wednesday, community organizations including the Coalition on Homelessness launched a new campaign and website called “Solutions Not Sweeps.” The groups delivered a letter to Breed with a list of demands including an end to the “complaint-driven and law enforcement-led response to homelessness.”

“We demand that The City remove all police from The City’s street cleaning teams and HSOC efforts, as well as any other city-led initiative around homelessness,” the group wrote. “Responding to our housing crisis with law enforcement further criminalizes people for trying to survive.”

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jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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