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. 

This kind of reporting is not free. It takes humans, intelligent humans. Support Mission Local today. 

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.