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Compassionate Alternative Responses to Homelessness in San Francisco

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Op-Ed By Jennifer Friedenbach 

Jennifer Friedenbach is the Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco. CoH organizes homeless people to fight for permanent solutions and human rights.

SF CART: Statement on Mayor’s New Street Responses

In January of 2020, the San Francisco Police Commission passed a resolution unanimously stating that police are not the appropriate response to homelessness, and calling for a task force to develop an alternative.  Community organizations, department representatives, academics, and unhoused people came together, conducted research, reviewed model programs, garnered input from unhoused community members and designed CARTSF – Compassionate Alternative Response Team.

CART reengineers emergency communications, dispatch, and response strategy to address the socio economic and health needs occurring in public space, while uplifting people who are unhoused. This report was released in December, and there is an implementation campaign group that started up in January.  To find out more about CART click here.

Mayor’s Response to Date

Over the past five months, the Mayor has funded two teams. The first, funded primarily by Prop C, Our City Our Home revenue, was the Street Crisis Response Team and the second is the Street Wellness Response Team.  This has created a lot of questions as to how CART would fit in.  This statement attempts to answer that question.

How does CART differ from SCRT and SWRT

The Compassionate Alternative Response Team, or CART program seeks to end San Francisco’s current police response to homelessness. CART will create a future of care, not criminalization for the unhoused residents of San Francisco. CART is a community-led, government-funded response that holds those who are on the margins of our community at the center of proper systems of care that result in dignity — instead of neglect. Key to the program design is that it is “community led”.

Homelessness has been used  as a political wedge in San Francisco elections for the past several decades.  The population is vilified and demonized, and tactics to dehumanize them- such as playing into xenophobia and describing unhoused neighbors as outsiders- are  a common refrain.  As a result, our homeless response is inequitable and politically charged.  HDizz @dizz_h released emails from city policy makers that revealed VIP treatment for the powerful when requesting swift removal of encampments.  The Homeless Outreach Team has for years had its trust with unhoused community members disintegrated by being pulled from one politically motivated operation to the next, having to break promises of housing at the whims of those in charge, who one day want to offer services to those who live rough in front of a well-connected business owners property, and the next to those in an area of a special event. We very deliberately designed CART to be placed outside of that political structure and in the community to ensure equity and balance in our overall homelessness approach.

SCRT is inside the city apparatus – instead of the police department it is inside another uniformed division, this time the fire department.  The team responds to B level 800 calls, labeled “mentally disturbed”,  and B level meaning a fairly serious psychiatric crisis where someone may be in harm’s way, but does not have a weapon. They have three team members – paramedic, a peer and a clinician. The 800 code was a police code and is now a health code.

CART can respond to overflow 800 C level calls, but also will respond to about 65,000 other C level calls regarding homelessness ranging from sit/lie to trespassing that are currently covered by SFPD.  The B level calls SCRT responds to were not included in the list of codes CART would respond to.  CART would also change these dispatch codes from being police codes to health codes.

SWRT responds to wellness check calls by having again a paramedic, but a lighter version, and they will go and check on the well being of someone outside, for whom a concerned passerby called the emergency line.  These wellness calls were included in the list of calls covered by CART.

What is CART’s position on SCRT and SWRT

As we move away from relying on police, it is critical that we move away from institutional responses in order to build up resilience in the community.  The CART concept is a community- based response to address homelessness, street based conflict and health needs as well as to change harmful practices and narratives that are perpetrated by systems that have inadequately served the most vulnerable due to structural racism.  Both SCRT and SWRT rely on institutional responses centered in the fire department.

In addition, SWRT focuses on wellness checks and does not go far enough to address the criminalization of homelessness.  For too long, cities across the country, including San Francisco have relied on police to manage homelessness, pushing them away from complaining business and neighbors properties, ticketing them, and rousting them out of tourist areas and centers of commerce. This has not only been inhumane, but has been ineffective and a waste of resources.  It has both exacerbated homelessness and led to criminalization resulting in unhoused individuals making up a third of the city’s jail population.  CART is intentional about halting that dynamic.  Since SWRT only responds to wellness calls, in thousands of other calls, police will continue to respond. There is also concern that SWRT will serve as another arm of harassment, lacking the intentionality of CART of ensuring unhoused residents have dignity and agency in those conversations at point of contact by the team.

Lastly, there is a trend of San Franciscans  not calling anyone because of hesitancy to call police, even in situations when a response is needed, out of fear that a 911 call will generate a police response and thus lead to criminalization or violence. It is essential that a separate phone number is available for San Franciscans to call for help.

What We Want

There is certainly plenty of room for collaboration between CART, SCRT and SWRT, as each is a street response with a unique focus, and there is both a   high volume of dispatch calls and an  even higher number of individuals on the street, – there will be plenty of calls for these various approaches to respond to.

We are calling on the Mayor to fully fund CART, move us away from a police response to homelessness and instead to have a compassionate response of a team of well- resourced, professionally  paid, extensively trained peers whose lived experiences reflect the faces of those on the streets.  The cost of CART is $6.8m, of which $2m is on reserve at the Board of Supervisors.  This is far more efficient than utilizing police resources, and diverting calls from police would result in savings in the police department budget.  Our recommendation is that funding for this program come from law enforcement agencies, so that funding does not compete with homeless funding meant to house and treat individuals.  The team will only be as successful as the system behind it.  By utilizing law enforcement dollars, funding such as Prop C that expands solutions for homeless people would be preserved for beds and housing.

For more information on CART visit:

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