May 18, 2023 - Health

The push for non-police alternatives in response to homelessness

Unhoused people near City Hall in December 2022. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Coalition on Homelessness, alongside other community groups, is pushing the city to create a new police-free response system to homelessness.

Why it matters: Proponents argue a community-led model to respond to homelessness would reduce the number of harsh and violent interactions between police and unhoused people.

Driving the news: The coalition hosted a rally on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday to urge Mayor London Breed to allocate $6.8 million in funding to the Department of Public Health to implement the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) program.

  • The program — modeled after a community-based program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS — would rely on trained community members who have experienced homelessness, poverty or had encounters with the criminal justice system.
  • Calls from 911 and 311 pertaining to unhoused people would be re-routed to CART, as long as the situation doesn't pose any present danger to life or property, according to the community-based plan.

Context: In 2021, supervisors unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of CART.

  • Of note: The city already routes some of these calls to non-police organizations. The Street Crisis Response Team (SCRT), for example, handles psychiatric crises, while the Street Wellness Response Team focuses on well-being checks.

Yes, but: Advocates for CART argue the other teams serve a niche purpose and "are not necessarily easily accessed by the public," Sara Shortt, director of public policy and community organizing for supportive housing nonprofit HomeRise, told Axios via email.

  • "None of them are able to cover close to the need in terms of calls to the police about homelessness issues, which are 60,000/year," she said.
  • Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of Coalition on Homelessness, said in a written statement the program would "build the capacity of Black and Brown organizations who already have deep trust and relationships within the community in order to address concerns and needs."

Between the lines: The Coalition on Homelessness and seven unhoused people in San Francisco sued the city in September, alleging the city has violated the constitutional rights of unhoused people by criminalizing homelessness via displacement, known as sweeps, despite a lack of shelters.

What to watch: While city officials didn't comment directly on CART, Breed spokesperson Noel Sanchez said the city plans to launch a $3 million pilot program that will provide a "community-based response to certain non-medical, non-emergency situations involving people experiencing homelessness."

  • The city has already selected a nonprofit provider and will launch "very soon," he said.

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