(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tenderloin nonprofit employs formerly homeless and incarcerated to patrol city sidewalks

Expanded security force welcomed by some, but homeless say they feel harassed

A Tenderloin nonprofit that provides services to disadvantaged people is training formerly homeless and incarcerated individuals to move the homeless away from certain areas — and in some cases, to make arrests.

The St. Anthony’s Foundation is best known for a large dining room it operates at 121 Golden Gate Ave., where more than 2,500 plates of food are served each day. The nearly seven decade-old social service organization also operates a medical clinic at 150 Golden Gate Ave., provides addiction recovery services and operates a shelter during the winter months, among other things.

But St. Anthony’s also trains and operates its own security force, and in recent months has begun contracting out its services to other organizations and businesses in the Tenderloin. The program’s employees help roust the homeless from nearby churches and businesses during daytime hours.

The nonprofit bills the program as a way to de-escalate conflict and increase neighborhood safety while connecting those in need to services. But a number of homeless people in the neighborhood say they are increasingly feeling harassed by the security force.

People stand outside the St. Anthony’s Foundation building on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

St. Anthony’s Advocacy Program Manager Calder Lorenz said the organization started the Client Safety Services program some 10 years ago. It now employs about 40 people.

Some of the program’s employees are graduates from St. Anthony’s drug and recovery program, while others have been homeless or incarcerated.

“[CCS] started with the idea that instead of enforcing rules or laws or calling the police all the time on behavior, we would have a program that trains and hires from the community so that we could essentially de-escalate situations on our own, but also have conversations with folks on the block about general safety,” Lorenz told the San Francisco Examiner last Friday.

He added that the neighborhood has a lot of “seniors and children moving around.”

“CSS allowed us to have a relationship with folks where we are meeting them where they are at. We are trying to provide safety for all parties involved,” he said.

But Anthony, a 41-year-old homeless man who often sleeps near O’Farrell and Jones streets because his mother lives in an apartment in the area, said that the CSS guards “are not cleaning up the area.”

“They are just walking around bickering at people. I really don’t see them socializing with the elderly guys in the area, carrying bags or helping them,” he said. “It’s a lot of intense [interactions]. You have to know how to communicate to have people cooperate with you.”

While trained in de-escalation, first-aid and administering the opioid antidote Narcan, a majority of the guards who patrol certain blocks in the Tenderloin on foot or on Segways are also certified to carry handcuffs and are trained to make citizens arrests if needed.

Penal Code 837 is a California Statute that authorizes a private person to arrest another, commonly called a “citizen’s arrest.” Such an arrest can be carried out if one person witnesses or suspects another of committing a felony, or for engaging in unruly public behavior.

“They do carry handcuffs. They are trained on physical de-escalation for their safety and the public’s safety,” said Lorenz, who added that “once or twice a week we may have to put someone in handcuffs — it just depends on the situation.”

A video available on St. Anthony’s website presents the program as a compassionate alternative to police responding to homeless individuals sitting and sleeping on public sidewalks and in the vicinity of businesses.

For $20 an hour, CCS employees are tasked with rousting the homeless from select blocks between roughly 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days per week, and directing them to services.

“We are not picking on people,” said a CSS guard who gave his name as Charles. “We are basically up here to prevent the guys [from] being a nuisance here, [those] leaving trash and needles [and] smoking drugs or stuff like that — that’s what we are up here to do.”

“We ask them to pack up for the day. If they are hungry we have food and clothing,” said Lorenz. “St. Boniface is the church right next to us — folks can head there to sleep [on pews].”

The program has been so successful that St. Anthony’s began contracting out the service to partner organizations and businesses at a rate of $35 per hour. St. Anthony’s currently has six contracts in the neighborhood, according to Lorenz.

“We wanted to create a blueprint that the Tenderloin community or other parts of The City would be interested in using, so a curriculum was set up,” said Lorenz, adding that St. Anthony’s received a grant to help “expand the idea of CSS.”

“What we’re seeing is multiple organizations and businesses hiring through a single contract and identifying which area on the block supports the work or via an agreement with the safety block groups,” he said.

One of those contracts belongs to the Curry Senior Center at 333 Turk St. Executive Director David Knego told the Examiner that his staff felt overwhelmed when addressing drug dealing and safety issues outside of the center and dealing with individuals coming in requesting to use the bathroom.

“One of our nurses got assaulted in the neighborhood store,” said Knego. “I thought we had to do something.”

Knego said that the police response to calls from the senior center is often inconsistent. The center tried a traditional security company, but found St. Anthony’s CSS program to be “a more effective and humane approach.”

“[They] have a different approach [in which] people on the streets aren’t the enemy, we are all sharing the space, if you are in front of the building could you respect my space or the seniors’ space by taking some of the business around the corner,” Knego said.

About a month ago, a pair of CSS employees were contracted for the 400 block of O’Farrell Street by another senior center located at 481 O’Farrell St. and a church adjacent to Shannon Street — a one-block alleway that holds a number of murals dedicated to war veterans, known as “Veteran’s Alley.”

The Shannon Street alley runs between O’Farrell and Post streets in the Tenderloin. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Their arrival has not been universally welcomed.

“Who are they as an organization to come in and set up arbitrary curfews on people?” said San Francisco artist and U.S. Navy veteran Amos Gregory, who co-founded the mural project inside of the alley.

Gregory, an advocate who has worked to help house homeless veterans, said he began noticing the security guards patrolling the block around the alley on Segways while he was painting in the alley.

“I’m 25 feet away from what they are doing to people. The level of service we would want to see [is] someone who is hands on working with these people, and really trying to find a positive solution for their lives,” said Gregory. “That’s not happening here.”

Responding to concerns about harassment of homeless individuals, Lorenz said that the organization “in no way [is] telling people they have to move.”

“If someone is really resistant, but they are blocking the sidewalk, we say, ‘do you need anything? It would be helpful for the kids and seniors to walk through,’” he said.

“We won’t make [them] move. We won’t call the police. But we will come back tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, is there a way that maybe today we can find you another alternative space?” he added.

But half a dozen homeless people interviewed by the Examiner said that they have been forced to move along without receiving an offer of service. All said that they felt harassed by the guards.

“He’s threatened me physically. He also said he’d put me in handcuffs. I go, ‘Why?’ I’m standing here on a public sidewalk. I’m waiting for the bus,” said Mike, a 61-year-old San Francisco native, recounting an interaction he had with a CSS guard patrolling the block in front of the Christian Science Church on O’Farrell Street, where he frequently sleeps.

“It’s a mystery to me why someone like him thinks he’s got the authority to run everybody off a sidewalk no matter what they are doing, and to threaten you physically like he’s going to fight you if you don’t,” said Mike, who is a former construction worker.

“They don’t offer services. I tell them, ‘Listen, before you run people out you better have a place we can go.’ They don’t allow us down there, here and there. It’s all ‘trespassing,’” said Mike. “Somewhere you have to draw the line and just be able to rest somewhere and sit down. You can’t walk around 24 hours a day just because you are 86’d from the entire planet Earth.”

Homeless in the Tenderloin for eight years, a woman who gave her name as Faan Nomad said that the guards first began patrolling the sidewalk opposite the church in an effort to ensure that seniors living in a senior center there would have a clear path to walk on.

“Everybody pretty much respected it. But then they started going across the street to the church, saying that was part of their jurisdiction, and started harassing us and getting more and more pushy,” said Nomad. “They started going around the entire block, and telling people they had to leave, watching what we are doing and taking pictures of us.”

Gregory said that he feels the funding for the program would be better spent on “a couple of social workers to do intensive case management just on this location, rather than to get the goon patrol out here to harass folks that look to them like they don’t belong here.”

“You have homeless folks who get pushed around, and [low-income] residents who live around here who get profiled,” said Gregory. “It’s breaking the trust and it’s also self-defeating — if they are really trying to help them, why didn’t someone at St. Anthony’s say, ‘Hey, we’ll take this money and put our services there.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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