San Francisco Public Works workers clear a homeless encampment on 14th and Mission Streets in 2017. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Advocates last night tore into the city’s homeless policies, decrying them as cruel, arbitrary and, on top of all that, ineffective.

At a lengthy and contentious Wednesday night Police Commission meeting, the Coalition on Homelessness and others claimed city policies have actually been actively harmful to unhoused individuals, criminalizing homelessness and failing at the ultimate goal of helping people get housed. 

“We now have double the police resources to addressing homelessness than we started, and only 5 percent of the people who’ve been rounded up by the police have been meaningfully helped out of homelessness,” said Chris Herring, a UC Berkeley sociology doctoral student who presented on behalf of the Coalition. 

The task force being discussed is called Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC). Composed of Public Works, the police, the Department of Homelessness, and the Department of Public Health, HSOC was instituted early last year to help these agencies work together better towards a collective goal of making the streets safe for everyone. 

The city receives approximately 2,500 calls to 311 and 911 every week related to homelessness, public drug use, and street safety. Before HSOC, there had been no streamlined way of handling these calls. 

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In his presentation, Herring praised some of the agencies involved, but ultimately said that since HSOC was formed in January 2018, homelessness has been further criminalized, and human rights violations have increased. 

He cited the Department of Public Works’ policy of seizing and disposing of personal property and tents — especially tents that are only briefly left unattended — and the conspicuous absence of city health officials during “sweeps.” 

Coalition members also want to ensure that officials provide adequate time and preparation for every camp removal, and follow a 9th Circuit Court ruling that nobody sleeping on the street should be arrested unless “adequate and appropriate” shelter or housing is offered to them. What constitutes “adequate” shelter is still up for debate, Herring said. 

The primary shelter being offered to people experiencing homelessness are “extremely temporary, often one to seven days,” he said. Spending such a short time in a shelter is not enough time for people to get the help they need.

People are also asked to surrender their property in order to be admitted to a shelter.

At least five people sleep under the pedestrian bridge at Hampshire and 26th Street in the Mission. Sometimes more than three people climb into one of the tents. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Representatives from HSOC agencies presented their own findings on the center’s effectiveness and successes. Commander David Lazar spoke on behalf of the San Francisco Police Department. 

“It shouldn’t be the police department in charge,” he conceded. “It’s a collaboration.”

He added that his department prioritized training officers in crisis intervention, and instructs police to avoid issuing citations or booking people, except as a last resort.

“Yes, the police are on the front line, but what’s important is for our officers to be thinking how can we connect people to services, housing, drug treatment,” he said.

“SFPD does not enforce laws related to camping without making a genuine shelter offer first,” he promised. “We’d rather get someone connected to the navigation center where there’s 15 beds reserved for us, than put someone in jail.”

The vast majority of the arrests made since HSOC was formed were for people with outstanding warrants, he said: “Our job is to help people. We are there to keep people safe. But sometimes, there’s a criminal element, and that’s why we’re there.” 

Officers received weekly trainings on harm reduction, on how the city’s navigation centers work, and all the services available to people experiencing homelessness, he added.

Commissioner John Hamasaki said he was worried that street dwellers’ tents were being cruelly taken away from them.

“The concern that I have is people’s shelters being taken away without any other option,” he said. “It’s tragic, it’s horrifying to see people living on the street. But when the last bit of shelter is taken from them, it is cruel and inhumane.”

“This is about trying to get people out of tents and into shelters,” Lazar responded. He said that once people were physically off the streets it is easier to help them.

But Herring countered that most people aren’t engaging with services during such a short stay, and that seven days isn’t long enough to permanently house someone. He said that he hopes more of HSOC’s data will be released soon, so that he and others can determine exactly what the effects of the program have been on San Francisco’s homeless population.

“We can’t say for sure without that data, but our concern is that constantly moving people around, taking their tents, and only taking them off the streets for a few days at a time has actually worsened the homeless crisis,” he said.

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  1. I was in town for a recent conference. I stayed at a hotel near Market and 8th. I like to walk. so I hoofed the mile+ back and forth to the Moscone Center. What an adventure it was every day. I have not lead a sheltered life, but have not seen people shoot-up before. I have now seen two people shoot-up and one smoking a crack pipe. I sure hope those ubiquitous needle covers don’t choke a sea turtle. I did notice how clean it was around city hall — the smell of pine-sol hung in the air vs the more routine urine+feces+BO stench. I find it funny that any undeserving person who wanders their way into this formerly fine city deserves vast city resources. Sounds like you need to common sense approaches that HELP THE TAX PAYERS. Ready, here goes — big cop says you cant sleep here, move along. That’s how it used to be done. Or, do what NYC does — send ’em to New Jersey! About 15 years ago, my family and I visited SF (young kids). I would now never bring a family to “enjoy” the SF sights. I see no reason to return myself and will avoid it. Good luck in making SF great again.

  2. My seven year old is terrified of the homeless. He doesn’t want to go to Golden Gate Park or downtown. Doesn’t he have as much of a right to enjoy the city – free from fear – as the homeless, many of whom migrated here from elsewhere? I’m tired of this city being a dumping ground. After decades of this, my empathy is gone. And I’m not the only one. At some point the citizens will take matters into their own hands and institute measures that are both draconian and truly cruel. There’s a clock ticking.

    1. I concur with you Jeff. Those who do not see the bigger picture will eventually lead this city to an even more ruinous state. My family feels the same as you. Even my teenage kids. These crazy liberals have gone too far and are losing the support of those who should also matter in this city. Those of us who pay the taxes.

  3. The problem with the homeless advocates is that they ignore the wishes and needs of a larger majority who live and work in the City. I was born and raised in the City and the City is still my home. But these homeless advocates have basically caused our once beautiful City to become overrun by homeless people seeking government assistance. If the silent majority were to speak up, I’d imagine the following: 1. The current homeless will be moved from the streets into an encampment for temporary housing with necessary medical and food. 2. These temporary housing facilities will match these folks to jobs that match their skill sets and find them employment. 3. The City should refocus its homeless dollars on this program and no longer support any other program that do not produce tangible results in moving homeless from the streets. 4. Those who suffer mental health issues should be placed in mental care facilities throughout the state.

    The bottom line is that the homeless advocates have ruined this once great city. It is really time that the silent majority take back the city fron these crazy liberal folks who do not believe in a productive society.

    1. “The problem with civil rights activists in the South in the 1960s was that they ignored the wishes and needs of a larger majority who live and worked in the South.

    2. “The problem with the Civil Rights advocates is that they ignore the wishes and needs of a larger majority who live and work in the South”. Do you see the problem with your comment? And you “silent majority” sounds an awful lot like 1930s Germany. So, basically you want a concentration camp, and to unconstitutionally strip people of their rights for being poor. Fortunately, that is never going to happen.

      1. A great SF chron article that most of you have probably seen:

        This is an emergency and should be treated as such. If you are part of a group in desperate need of help, we need emergency action. It is not ok to shit on the street and perpetuate the *hard* drugs problem. We need to draw a line on the issue and spend 500M/yr to build large facilities in less dense areas utilizing public land for mental health treatment and bridge housing. The remaining folks who deny help and continue a life of daily crime should absolutely be criminalized.

        Jo, you’re obviously a very smart journalist and intellectual. It’s frustrating to read false equivalents like the one argument about increasing police during a crime wave. When you increase a police presence, crime is reduced. When you expand SF’s cruel and unusual industrial homeless complex, the homelessness equivalent of a “crime wave” expands as well.

        So, if you have cancer and the holistic medicine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to consider chemotherapy or other drastic measures. There are undoubtably better analogies, of course.

        “Also, San Francisco, which gets an influx of about 450 chronically homeless people a year, needs to shed any perception that it is a sanctuary for people who are unwilling to participate in programs designed to get them off, and keep them off, a life in the streets. It is neither inhumane nor “criminalizing poverty” to enforce laws against aggressive panhandling, tent encampments or defecation and urination in public places. It would be a colossal waste of money to make the necessary investments in supportive housing and other services without a commensurate commitment to assure that the people who are offered this array of assistance are no longer afforded the option to flout the law with impunity.”

        1. Missionite, I concur with your vision and plan. Please run for mayor and or supervisor. Seriously I would volunteer my time to help you make this happen. We need to take back the city for our families and kids.

      2. Geek girl, I suggest you read my post in its entirety. Your analogy to nazism and concentration camps is way off base and unfounded. My assertion is to house and employ the homeless so that they can become productive members of society, and subsequently to improve the quality of life for those of us who call the city home.

  4. In April I walked 7 blocks each way from the Stanford Court hotel in the middle of the day and was accosted three times by apparently drunk, stoned or homeless people.
    People need stop whining about “inhuman” treatment and take every measure to protect people as they go about their business.
    Glad I will not have to return to The People’s Republic of California

  5. “Navigation Centers have been reformatted from serving homeless people to serving sweeps and the interests of the housed.”

    I’d be interested in knowing what Herring meant by this.

  6. Will an epidemic or plague start in California with all the TENT people and needles and garbage and feces and urine and rats and fleas on the streets and sidewalks …….. ??? ……Make California Great Again

  7. you junkies have nothing coming. hurry up and get your hot shot of fentanyl and check out already.

  8. It would be great if the state bought land out east when they can create a village. Have drug rehabs, medical services, housing, police and job training. Give the homeless a shot but get them off drugs and criminalize sleeping in texts and the sidewalks. You never see tent encampments In New York City.

    The problem with San Francisco is they enable the problem. Also we have DA’s that don’t know how to actually do there job and prosecute the dealers. I saw 15 drug deals on Polk and Geary in a guy in a Mercedes GLK 350. I called the police and they wouldn’t even file a report.

    I lived in SF for a year and cant wait to move out of here. I have lived in 15 city’s around the world and Market Street and 8th was the 1st time in my life I felt unsafe.

    1. you dont see tent encampments in NYC because they have different laws. new york has a “right to shelter” law, Callahan vs Carey. this essentially makes it a legal requirement for New York to provide shelter for every single person who needs it. as a result the police there are always able bring someone inside. unfortunately san francisco does not have enough shelter beds, and the weather is mild year round, so you see tent encampments.

  9. “The vast majority of the arrests made since HSOC was formed were for people with outstanding warrants”. Warrants for what? Last I looked, there are numerous “quality of life” violations, which target the homeless (not explicitly of course) . The police have been “in charge” of homelessness in this city at least since the days of Frank Jordan. Although they routinely say the Police should have a minor, not major role, their budget swells because of it. Last week ML found 206 homeless in the Mission (there are probably considerably more). How many calls a month does the Mission Police Station respond to regarding our homeless residents?

    1. I don’t know how many calls does SFPD field a month for people openly dealing crack and meth on Turk And Leavenworth? Or calls relating to people literally occupying the entire sidewalk in the Tenderloin to spread out their heroine kit and inject needles into their feet in broad day light forcing everyone else to walk in the street? That is not acceptable and the police shouldn’t abnegate their responsibility here. I’m not pro-incarceration but what other alternative is there? Should the whole neighborhood should be held hostage to the drug dealers and users?

      Huge chunks of the Tenderloin are an open-air drug market big shocker that it’s inundated with people homeless drug addicts.

      1. the problem is that, for the most part, the cops can’t just arrest someone for shooting up. due to prop 47 and the court’s interpretation of this, generally simple possession of controlled substances warrants a ticket (not arrest). that’s why arrests are usually relating to folks with outstanding warrants – this is the easiest way to remove someone from the street for any significant time.

        as for arrests for drug sales, just follow the twitter feed of Tenderloin station. they remove thousands of dollars of narcotics from the streets every day. its relentless, which is why the freakin feds moved in to the TL this week with a huge operation.

  10. The city spends $300 million per year to fight homelessness. Is it having any effect? Would there be a noticeable difference if we reduced that to $100 million or even $0?

    1. John —

      Yes, it would be like dropping a bomb on the city (which, essentially, will happen after The Big One). The lion’s share of the money goes to what you don’t see: Keeping people housed. If we had more housing, and state and/or federal aid to do this, it would make a huge difference for thousands of people. If we had the $300M or so annually from Prop. C that would also be a game-changer.

      The reaction of “things are bad so we should reduce our efforts and see what happens” seems to be unique to homelessness. Nobody suggests reducing police budgets or manpower during a crime wave. Nobody suggested reducing the number of street-cleaners as complaints about San Francisco’s dirty streets mount.

      San Francisco cannot solve America’s homeless problem. But serious suggestions to cut back efforts are simplistic and, frankly, lack human decency.


      1. articles like these make me even more frustrated with the NIMBYism we see in San Francisco. Let’s let the City build it’s navigation centers! enough with the lawsuits over the Seawall lot and anger over the House of Fans proposal. The more beds we provide and shelter (temporary AND permanent) we can scrounge together, the more options HSH and SFPD will have to offer the individuals they interact with who are living on the streets.

        I see people complaining that “the City doesnt do enough” and then when the City tries to generate solutions folks complain its the wrong solutions. There’s no question we need beds (mental health, sobering, temporary, etc) and we need shelter options throughout San Francisco. Our city government is trying to do that in a very challenging economic time. Let’s support those efforts people!

          1. Joe-
            I regularly read your articles and think your journalistic outlook is nuanced and accurate. I appreciate the perspective you give to San Franciscans. Thank you for your hard work.

            Agreed that the Embarcadero Nav Center is going to happen although I believe there is still some lingering legal challenges. Unfortunately the Prop C money is far, far away from being realized 🙁

          2. Thank you for the kind words.

            Rarely have I heard city officials (and the city attorney) as secure as they were regarding the Embarcadero Nav Center. For what it’s worth, I think the city will win that battle and people will get shelter. Other, larger, more challenging issues remain.

            Thanks for reading!


      2. Joe,

        “Nobody suggests reducing police budgets or manpower during a crime wave. Nobody suggested reducing the number of street-cleaners as complaints about San Francisco’s dirty streets mount.”

        Perhaps that’s because we can see Police and street cleaners making an effort to resolve the problems……While the more money spent by the City on “homeless services” only seems to result in more crazy drug users seen on the streets.

        What I – the public – sees our tax money going to – and what results that money gets (more police, more street cleaning) gets my support. What I’m told my money goes to (homeless services?) and I see no result makes me think the money is wasted.

        How about you write about the tax payers that live in areas where homeless people occupy the sidewalks – get their definition of “human decency”.

        1. Sir or madam —

          As noted in my earlier comment, the lion’s share of the homeless budget goes to housing. Just because you don’t “see” it doesn’t make it not so. So across-the-board condemnations of the budget are simplistic.

          I’m glad you can “see” cops “making an effort.” Arrest rates now are half of what they were even less than a decade ago, so I’m interested in what you’re looking at. Similarly, a few million dollars invested in something like bathrooms would reduce the need for after-the-fact street cleaners. But that’s not something as easy to “see” as someone power-washing the pavement.

          Finally, I cover the Mission and live in the Excelsior; it’s not like visible homelessness is a foreign concept. It’s not like those taxes aren’t my own.



      3. The money goes to corruption and vested interests. Homelessness is an open ended feedback loop, programs have no accountability. Even the DMV is more efficient. Why would any sane person continue to support programs and people that are criminally incompetent(one or the other or both)???

        Funding for police has an inverse relationship with crime, whereas funding for homelessness has a positive relationship, exacerbating the problem.

        I am all for helping, but not for wasting money and time. I would rather have the loin house low income productive people instead trying to rehab those that will never be productive. The leftist way of coddling has proven to not work, especially considering the resources input.

        Actual solution that would make SF a less shitty place (literally). Spend the $300m building a super project in Modesto, let developers build lux condos in the loin with a percentage of proceeds used to maintain shelter. Its a win win for all except corrupt politicians and their cronies.

        Wish all my friends and family had a no show gov job with no recourse for doing a poopy job.

        1. Every claim you made *could* ostensibly be backed up and *could* ostensibly be quantified, but you didn’t do that.

          Meanwhile, your solution of booting every poor person down to Modesto — which I’m sure Modesto would be cool with — and building luxury condos in the TL seems like a splendid idea. What could go badly? Good luck with that.


          1. Decades of time, billions of dollars, and current results is not enough backup? What planet are you from and what kind of math do they use? Must be that newsome, free needles = less bums math. Backup is graphing strung out bums stepped over on the way to work x time graph. You are too he problem. At this point I almost welcome more homeless to reach a tippinng point sooner, so the pendulum can finally swing the other way.

      4. The problem with adding that extra $300 million for services is that we’re going to get $300+ million more I. Demand for services from people all over the country who decide to move to SF – the most expensive city in the country to house people — in order to benefit from a the additional services.

        Why not spend the money in somewhere like Bakersfield where housing and employees to assist can be vastly cheaper – for example, this 12 unit apt building at $1.2 million:
        And an unemployment rate of 4.4%

        This is not a situation you can buy your way out of on a local level, SUNDE demand increases with each increase In funding.

    2. I don’t care how much they spend. Or how they do it. I just want the street people and their garbage off of my street.

      1. K.Schwinbarger, its so much easier to say “i want the street people off my street” than to actually provide a workable solution to what is a vastly complex problem. Where do you imagine these “Street people” will go if they don’t have a home? the next street over so it’s your neighbor’s concern to deal with?

        reductive desires don’t help the homeless. real solutions do. so its fine if you “dont care how” but not sure how valid your complaints are.

        my main issue with our City is moreso the open drug sales that take place in known locations in the TL, Soma, Mission. i wish SFPD had more teeth to arrest and prosecute effectively. however that is a different topic for a different article.

        1. I walked somewhere this morning and passed a neatly kept tent with a bike next to it and went on my way. This afternoon as I was passing it the denizen was standing there and shooting a needle into his abdomen. There is a skid row effect going on in this and other cities and this problem needs more than TLC. It needs the police and courts to do their part. And it needs less ideology coming from paid agents of tax funded non-profits that clearly aim to straightjacket local governments into an approved, by the non-profits, one size fits all approach. As we can see now that isn’t working. I don’t have an answer but I do see the problem everywhere I look and hear the ideology you spout everywhere.

        2. The thing is, a lot of people forget that there are two things that need addressing:
          a) how to provide for those who are unable/unwilling to reasonably support themselves (“helping the homeless”),
          b) minimizing the disruption they cause to those who can (“keeping the streets clean”).

          Part (a) is extremely important, as you point out — but the trend lately seems to be to forget about part (b), which is in itself also a goal…*especially* as long as part (a) has yet to be resolved.

    3. the market would repair itself, all the SROs in the TL would not be subsidized, the owners would be forced to sell to developers, gentrification + private security would happen, and SF would become a nice place to live with short commutes downtown.

      the downside is those skimming money off the top of $300M, running non-profit “assistance” orgs see their vested interest disappear.

    4. San Francisco (and California) are no longer a tourist destination. Democrats have been in charge of CA for a long time. They need to clean up the mesas they made