Earlier this month, the Mayor’s Office announced a new category on the 311 app promising to link homeless people to the help they need. Neighbors were encouraged to download the app, take pictures of homeless people and send them to The City, with a place where you can write notes. The new category on the app is entitled “homeless concerns” and it has subcategories one can choose from, including “Well-being check,” “Aggressive behavior,” “Encampment,” “Clean Up-Shopping Carts” and “Clean up – Other.”
Now, there are a lot of reasons why residents are concerned about their houseless neighbors: They may have compromised health, may be in crisis, may be cold or they may be unconscious. Instead, this is an easier way for housed residents to complain about destitute people. The tendency in homeless policy across the U.S. is to create a series of shallow solutions to a systemic problem. This follows that trajectory by releasing a good sound bite that has no substance behind it. The new app does nothing to remove the dearth of exits out of homelessness, it does not alleviate the thousands-long wait lists for housing, nor hundreds-long wait lists for shelter.
Darcel Jackson, who has been homeless, had it right when he was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner, calling it a “snitch app.” It is simply not OK to take someone’s picture without permission and send it with the attached location. Few people would appreciate a stranger taking unflattering pictures of themselves. It brings up safety concerns for women fleeing domestic violence, while other people are embarrassed by their current state and privacy is an essential part of their dignity. Homeless people are not objects and should not be treated as if they were a pile of garbage to be removed by The City. They are not in need of “clean-up.” They are in need of housing.
A deeper look at some of the data coming in is revealing. Someone sent in a homeless concern under the clean up-other category with a note “ bad for tourists.” In another complaint, a resident wrote that a woman had blood on their body, and The City sent the police in response, — when an ambulance probably should have been sent or at least a street medicine team.
In almost all cases, when a resident calls for a homeless concern, the response is to send the police. The police come and they are maybe able to move someone half a block temporarily or they can perhaps give a ticket for camping. The ticket likely will go unpaid and result in a warrant that will only act as yet another barrier to getting off the streets. The system is not responding to medical need or longest duration of homelessness. It is complaint-driven and politically fueled, which from a policy perspective does not make for a sane way to manage scarce homeless resources.
This is our primary systemic response to homelessness currently — Police respond to complaints about the presence of destitute people. This is akin to sending police to address a root in the sidewalk that is causing a safety concern. A strong homeless system would instead have capacity to treat homelessness as the emergency it is. We would have comprehensive housing, shelter and behavioral health as needed. When a resident called The City because someone had no place to call home, alarm bells would go off because that person’s well-being is at risk. The City would send an outreach worker, and the outreach worker would have at their fingertips the resources they needed to address the issue, much like every other westernized country has had since World War II.
Let’s get real. If someone needs medical attention, don’t take a picture and send it to an information center — get them some medical attention by calling 911. Put two phone numbers in your cell, one for psychiatric crisis (415-970-4000) and one for medical attention short of an ambulance (415-734-4233). Be a good neighbor and help folks, don’t just complain about them. Better yet, call your mayor, your senator and congressperson and demand the status quo isn’t working. Sending in police won’t solve the problem, but housing will. I know what you’re thinking: This is just too big a problem to solve, and even if we had it, homeless people wouldn’t go. I would challenge that notion and say it is simply a matter of political will. We decided as a nation to divest from housing, which caused this homeless crisis. We can decide to invest.
Everyone wants housing. Keep calling every chance you get and get your friends and family to do the same. Get to it!
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.