Homeless advocates last Wednesday asked the San Francisco Police Commission to reduce SFPD’s role in responding to homelessness.

The commission seemed receptive to the recommendations, indicating that they’d assist in seeing most of them fulfilled. But no formal vote was taken. Moreover, it quickly became clear that police are often on the front lines of the homeless issue because they are the only department able to respond at any hour.

Police have also fallen into the role of enforcer when various city agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, clear encampments, said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness.

But police have no services to offer, aside from those provided by other departments, advocates argued.  Moreover, the Coalition said that police have continued to enforce so-called “anti-homeless” laws that prohibit loitering, panhandling and sleeping on sidewalks.

Commander David Lazar, who heads the department’s Community Engagement Division and oversees a team of 10 homeless outreach officers, said the department receives some 5,000 homeless-related calls per month citywide.

The Mission averaged 1,284 homeless-related calls per month from July 2016 to July 2017, the most of any district, according to police data.

Lazar also said the department is training its dispatchers to educate callers about the proper agency to contact in a non-emergency homeless situation. He said, too, that his officers are “doing less enforcement” and working to better direct the street population to services.

“Our plan is to get individuals into the help they need,” Lazar said. “Although we’re police officers and we enforce the law, when we see someone get into the Navigation Center … stabilization and supportive housing — that’s the win.”

The coalition recommended that the SFPD monitor its 911 dispatch number to transfer calls for service on the homeless who are not violent or in crisis to 311 where the person is more likely to get services.

As it works now, a resident will call 911 and police attend to the call and often end up giving the homeless person a citation quality-of-life violations, according to the Coalition. The person has no money to pay the citation and moves on to another spot, where another resident may call.

The Coalition projected that, in 2017, police will issue 10,790 quality-of-life citations, such as urinating, defecating or drinking in public — and will issue 6,676 “anti-homeless” citations for sleeping, camping and panhandling, among others. Those numbers, however, have declined more than 30 percent from 2016.

Nevertheless, the Coalition said such citations can result in accruing fines, suspended drivers licenses or even arrest warrants against those who don’t pay. 

Most disruptive, the Coalition said, was moving people from place to place.

“It’s not possible to police people out of public space, primarily because there’s nowhere to go,” said Dilara Yarbrough, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and a member of the Coalition on Homelessness.

The police can become involved with a homeless person for a variety circumstances, Lazar later told Mission Local. Officers might ask a person to take their tent down for public safety reasons, he said. Or police might accompany Public Works during the clearing of an encampment.

The Coalition on Homelessness, a homeless advocacy group, presented the results of a study it conducted with more than 350 homeless individuals in late 2014. It found that forced displacements by police and the Department of Public Works increased safety risks among the homeless population, particularly women.  

The study also found that police involvement causes undue stress to the population.

Some 91 percent of respondents who police forced to move from a public space remained on the streets, just in different neighborhoods. Of those respondents who were forced to move, less than 12 percent were offered services, the study found.

“We don’t think police should be dispatched to respond to these issues — that’s helping this constant churn, as individuals are driven from one neighborhood to another,” Yarbrough said.

Overall, the commission seemed to support the recommendations, especially “shifting the protocol” to the more appropriate agencies, such as the Homeless Outreach Team and the Mobile Crisis Team. The latter is able to provide on-the-spot medical treatment.  

If a person appears to have a psychiatric issue and is not acting violently, for example, the Homeless Outreach or Mobile Crisis teams should be responding to a 311 call, instead of police, said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Police Chief Bill Scott said that, currently, the city does not have the social service capacity to respond to all of the calls at any time of the day. The department would have to coordinate with other city agencies to build that kind of system.

And it is clear that even if someone is not acting violently or is in a mental crisis, residents often call the police.

Commissioner Joe Marshall explained that he has a daycare next to his office, and sometimes his employees are intimidated by homeless people who linger around his office.

“If someone shows up like that, and [my employees] are concerned, who should I tell them to call?” Marshall asked.

Lazar said that in an emergency — such as someone taking their clothes off or acting violently in public — people should call 911. “Those emergency situations, we all know when we see it,” Lazar said.

Yet, in non-emergency situations, such as a homeless encampment, Lazar said to call 311. “That’s the one-stop-shop phone number in San Francisco,” he said.

Addressing the coalition’s recommendations, Commissioner Petra DeJesus said: “That’s something we can do. It’s clear we’re not talking about criminal activity — we’re talking about the things we can do to reduce police response to homelessness.”