In a proposal that would shake up the city’s day-to-day response to its homelessness crisis, San Francisco community leaders on Tuesday unveiled a plan to take police out of the equation.
Under the new framework, police would no longer respond to complaints about encampments or aggressive panhandling, reports of an unhoused person trespassing and other non-emergency calls involving homeless San Franciscans. Instead, those calls and more would be rerouted to civilian members of a new Compassionate Alternate Response Team, known as CART.
The proposal is another step in San Francisco’s ongoing police reform effort, and comes as cities throughout the Bay Area and around the country are grappling with demands to “defund” their police departments and reinvest in alternative programs.
“What we are doing right now as a city is completely failing,” San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who supports CART, said Tuesday during a Zoom call announcing the proposal. “A police-led response to homelessness is costly, it’s dangerous, it’s ineffective and it should end.”
San Francisco police responded to more than 65,000 calls related to homelessness in 2019. CART supporters say most of those calls result in the officer telling the unhoused person to “move along,” without addressing the underlying issues that have landed that individual on the street. Other times, those interactions can lead to citations and arrests, or even escalate to violence.
As the city continues its police reform efforts, the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco Police Officers Association in November agreed to let certain non-emergency calls be routed away from the police department — including mental health checks, well-being checks, calls for service at city parks and certain public health order violations.
“This potential reform is a first step in a larger, ongoing process to reform policing in the City,” the agreement states. “The (San Francisco Police Officers Association) commits to cooperation with the City in pursuing police reform.”
CART comes on the heels of another police reform initiative San Francisco rolled out in November — the Street Crisis Response Team. Under that pilot program, teams of paramedics, behavioral health clinicians and peer specialists respond to certain mental health calls instead of cops.
CART would respond to overflow mental health calls the Street Crisis Response Team couldn’t handle. But CART also would respond to requests for well-being checks, complaints of illegal camping or blocking a sidewalk, trespassing, panhandling and suspicious person reports involving unhoused residents.
Responders would be trained to de-escalate the situation and provide conflict resolution, first aid, referrals to mental health, addiction and housing services, and transportation to a hospital or service provider. CART would focus on hiring and training responders who have been homeless.
In addition to hiring paid street responders, CART also would recruit and train volunteers to resolve minor disputes in their neighborhoods.
“This is a really exciting time, I think, for San Francisco in that we are going to be on the forefront of changing the way that our city addresses these types of calls with our unhoused neighbors,” said San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki.
San Francisco has tried in the past to provide non-police responses to homelessness, such as its Homeless Outreach Team. But advocates say those efforts have failed to properly distance themselves from police, leading to distrust in the homeless community.
CART would cost the city an estimated $6.83 million per year. San Francisco supervisors already have approved $2 million, and CART supporters say the other $4.83 million should come from the police department’s budget. They say CART will generate at least $11 million in savings annually by diverting calls away from the police department.
If the program is approved and funded, it’s expected to launch in May.
In January 2020, the San Francisco Police Commission passed a resolution calling for a new policy that would prevent cops from serving as first-responders to homelessness. Following a brief delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials, community groups and people who are or have been homeless began work on the CART policy framework in July.
To determine how such a program could best serve the community, they surveyed 95 unhoused San Franciscans about their needs. When asked what they wanted from the program, one person responded: “To be treated like a human being.”
Cindy Keener, who has been homeless for more than 15 years and participated in the CART survey, said San Francisco needs a better response to homelessness.
“This program will be just a blessing to everybody,” she said.