While Mayor London Breed says she has doubled down to improve conditions in the Tenderloin, the city continues to withhold some $3 million allocated in 2021 to implement a new team of workers to respond to homelessness.
“That movement towards distributing the funds has not happened at all,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which has played a central role in community organizing and advocacy for the Compassionate Alternative Response Teams, known as CART.
“The funding is still sitting with the Department of Emergency Management, which is the wrong department,” said Friedenbach, “It really should be at the Department of Public Health Behavioral Health Services, where other [street response] teams are coordinated out of.”
CART emerged from a working group convened by the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors to serve as “an alternative to a police response to homelessness in San Francisco.”
It was inspired by models like CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) in Eugene, Oregon.
Vitka Eisen, president and chief executive officer of HealthRIGHT 360, supports CART as “a much more compassionate way to address people who are living on the streets.” It fills a gap that other street response teams do not, she told Mission Local in late 2021, adding it is more compassionate than city responses through the Healthy Streets Operations Center (HSOC) and SF Public Works.
Eisen also wishes CART were administered under the SF Department of Public Health. “I think people living on the streets is fundamentally a health issue, and I think the health department has … been forward-thinking on how to come up with compassionate responses to people with health challenges and responding to crises like staffing, isolation and quarantine hotels during covid.”
Although CART was partially funded by the Board of Supervisors during the 2021 budget season, and only five months remain in the fiscal year, the program is, today, nowhere to be seen.
Friedenbach said the team could operate from a Feb. 1 start date, with the $3 million allocated from police funds. Together with new state and federal funding sources, it could go for a year, she said; the total price tag is about $6.2 million.
However, to get access to that initial funding, said Friedenbach, the city would have to ensure the money was available to the right department by writing a request for proposals to start the bidding process.
While the Board of Supervisors can allocate money for programs, the mayor is not obligated to spend it. That’s why, despite all 11 supervisors in 2020 voting to obtain hotel rooms and put vulnerable homeless people in them, the mayor could blow off the legislation. More recently, in November, 2021, eight supervisors allocated $64 million to purchase rent-controlled apartments. It remains to be seen whether the mayor will spend the money.
Advocates worry CART will languish for lack of will to implement it, in deference to the powerful, unionized first-responder police and firefighters.
“Folks are still calling for a compassionate alternative to a police response, because folks don’t see the police response as effective, efficient or humane,” said Friedenbach, adding, “It’s one of the demands that’s coming through a lot … as a thoughtful way to address some of the issues related to homelessness in the Tenderloin.”
CART would divert level-C calls from the police; those are calls that don’t pose an imminent threat to life, such as a person sleeping in and blocking a doorway, or yelling loudly on the street.
This would result in fewer confrontations and would be less expensive for the city, which already foots the bill for cops trained in weapons and tactical measures.
“[The city is not] doing something that’s much more comprehensive and is addressing the 70,000 or so calls coming in to 911 regarding the presence of homeless people,” said Friedenbach. “So all those calls are continuing to be answered by the police.”
Nearly 800 of the 1,000 signatures desired have been reached on a petition to support the implementation of CART in behavioral health at the SF Department of Public Health, and the CART model has garnered 59 organizational endorsements and counting.
When asked by Mission Local in early December, 2021, to provide insight into why the decision was made to place CART within the Department of Emergency Management instead of the Department of Public Health, Andy Lynch, the Mayor’s press director, said the department was “best equipped to coordinate the different City agencies involved in [street crisis] responses and they are also the agency that responsible for taking incoming emergency calls and dispatching the appropriate resources.”
Lynch and the Office of the Mayor did not respond to requests this week to explain the delay in implementing CART by press time.
The Department of Emergency Management deferred its response to the Office of the Mayor on Wednesday, having written in an email in December that “we are aware of CART and have spoken to the program’s proponents.”
For Avi Erlich, owner and founder of Silver Sprocket on Valencia Street, where he is also a resident, CART is “obvious, common sense.”
Erlich is also a director at the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association, which endorses CART. He said local businesses have had to call the police with issues related to homeless persons, such as customer harassment or unruly dogs.
The police “literally don’t have anything that they can do about it,” he said, adding that long response time can be an issue since the calls are considered non-emergency. The CART model would aim to respond to calls within 15 minutes.
“We would much rather call someone to help out people who need help who are actually trained for it and equipped for it,” he said. “The CART approach would directly be able to communicate with people and treat them with respect and address what their needs are … Let’s address the problems in a reasonable, constructive way.”