An encampment near Civic Center. Photo by Lydia Chavez

A coalition of community organizations, service providers and city departments announced recommendations Tuesday to replace a police response to homelessness calls with a team primarily staffed by civilians who have experienced poverty or homelessness.

“All the police are trained to do or are able to do is tell people to move along. And that’s the best-case scenario — in many cases, the worst-case scenario can be violence, can be people actually losing their lives,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who helped develop the plan. 

Such a civilian response, reformers hope, will avoid such police shootings as the April, 2016, incident in which police shot and killed Luis Góngora Pat, a homeless immigrant from Mexico, in the Mission. 

“He died at the hands of two brutes that had no respect for Mayan people, or immigrants or homeless individuals,” said José Góngora, Luis’ brother, in Spanish at the campaign launch. “Luis would be alive today if he would have relieved a compassionate response from our community.”

The Police Commission subsequently said shooting Góngora Pat was within policy, as he had allegedly threatened officers with a knife, a claim witness accounts dispute.

The Compassionate Alternate Response Team, known as CART, includes two components. The CART Dispatch Response would provide a specialized team to respond to homelessness-related calls. It would also establish a hotline to call the CART team directly. 

And the CART Street Response, the second component of the plan, would create a “community-strengthening hub” to respond to crises, and train housed people to “compassionately respond” to unhoused neighbors. CART staff would be paid and trained with either crisis response skills or community development skills, depending on their role.

Underlying the policy changes would be a focus on the needs of those experiencing homelessness, instead of the complaints of a caller making a report, or other residents in the city, according to the plan’s report.

CART could become operational in May 2021, pending funding and ongoing work with various city departments. The Police Commission and Public Defender’s Office were among the groups listed as having contributed to the plan.

The need for an alternative to a police response has been clear for some time. 

The Police Department responded to 65,333 homeless-related calls in 2019, according to data from the Department of Emergency Management. Such calls include complaints about homeless individuals sitting or lying on the sidewalk and trespassing. 

San Francisco reported 9,808 homeless people in 2019 who met the city’s expanded definition of homeless, which includes individuals in jails or hospitals.

The initiative also comes amid calls here and across the country to rethink policing. In January, 2020, the Police Commission unanimously passed a resolution calling for a more effective response to homelessness that eliminates the use of police as first and primary responders. And in October, the Police Commission approved a sweeping new policy to promote community engagement in policing.

Gwendolyn Westbrook, the executive director of The United Council of Human Services, said the resources CART would offer could help people exit homelessness and reduce the number of homelessness-related conflicts in the city.

“If we catch people in the beginning of their homelessness, and we give them the resources to come out of it before they’re so entrenched into what happens when people are homeless, it’ll be better for everyone in San Francisco,” Westbrook said.

CART comes with a proposed budget of $6,825,000 annually to respond to 65,000 homelessness-related calls. The Board of Supervisors has already placed $2 million in reserve for the program, and the remaining $4.825 million would ideally be paid for by funds currently allocated to the police budget. They emphasized that the funding should not come from existing resources to support homeless people. 

“A police-led response to homelessness is costly. It’s dangerous. It’s ineffective. And it should end,” said Supervisor Haney. 

The team estimates implementing CART could yield at least $11 million in savings annually.

CART was developed, in part, based on a survey of 95 homeless people, including homeless people from the Mission District. Across the board, homeless residents said they would appreciate an approach that does not involve the police, and incorporates the perspectives of those who have experienced homelessness. 

Elgin Rose, a program manager at Code Tenderloin, quoted one homeless person interviewed as saying, “I want to be treated like a human being.” 

Cindy Keener, who was one of the survey participants, has been homeless for about two decades. “The cops are really bad out here,” she said, recounting times where she had seen police kick homeless people or take their belongings.

Homeless people need someone to trust, someone to provide resources and someone to talk to, according to Keener. She says CART can fill that role.

“If I had this kind of program a long time ago, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” she said. “I’d have my own place and my life together.”

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Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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  1. First of all, let me explain to you that 25% of those homeless people are parolees probationers game bangers pants drug dealers, who tells there pro officer probation officer today live on the streets that way there stuff don’t get search, and then other ( my opinion 5% of them of severe mental problems, which medication does not help, and then we have a big percent of them that are military vets who are addicted to drugs , then the rest of the community were hit hard during this coronavirus issue and I am 1 of those ex- homeless person, but that’s the truth about the homeless issue , and once the coronavirus issue is taking care of the problem is going to get worse

  2. Given that the Police Department budget in San Francisco is an obscene $747 million –that’s right $747,646,708.00– it would seem they could spare more than a paltry $4 million to help the almost 10,000 unhoused people suffering through a deadly pandemic on the streets.

  3. This is certainly good news – for us ‘housed’ property-tax-paying devils, the police, and the blameless ‘unhoused’.

  4. When the term “homelessness related calls” is used, what exactly does that mean?

    Is it a call about a tent or someone sitting on a sidewalk? Under someone’s window?

    Is it a call about someone experiencing substance or psych crisis on the streets, irrespective of their housing status?

    Is it a call about a bicycle chop shop or meth dealership being run out of a tent or RV?

    What does it mean that nonprofits are taking over formerly police function? It is not like we have effective oversight with the SFPD, but the mechanisms theoretically exist. For private firms to be referred instead of public employees raises a raft of ethical and oversight issues.

    And why is this a deal being cut by one commission and agencies? Why is this not a greater public policy discussion of how we defund the police and spin up an unarmed community rooted public safety function to deal with the vast majority of calls now handled by the police that do not require an armed agent of the state?

    1. A better question is: What does it mean that police have historically taken over public health functions?