May 31, 2023 - News

San Francisco pilots new crisis response team

Illustration of San Francisco City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

San Francisco has a new pilot program that will serve as a police-free response to homelessness, the mayor's office announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: Local and national proponents have pushed for community-led alternatives to police taking calls that could β€” and have β€” led to violent outcomes.

  • The city's new Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team (HEART) will comprise of workers trained in harm reduction, de-escalation, CPR and first aid, administering Naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses, connecting unhoused people with appropriate services and more, per the city.

What's happening: HEART members will respond to non-emergency and non-medical 911 and 311 calls involving unhoused people, the mayor's office said.

  • The team will consist of outreach workers from Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit organization that aims to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas.
  • The city said its emergency management department will oversee HEART's operations in partnership with Urban Alchemy.

Of note: San Francisco already routes certain 911 and 311 calls to other teams that don't involve the police.

  • The Street Crisis Response Team (SCRT), for example, handles psychiatric crises, while the Street Wellness Response Team focuses on well-being checks.
  • HEART plans to work in coordination with those pre-existing teams, according to the mayor's office.

By the numbers: HEART is funded with $3 million allocated in last fiscal year's budget for a one-year pilot.

What they're saying: "Addressing homelessness isn’t just about adding new shelter or housing β€” it's also about meeting people where they are to get them connected to those resources," Mayor London Breed said in a press release.

  • Lena Miller, CEO of Urban Alchemy, said "community-based safety has been the missing piece to the puzzle" in supporting the city's unhoused population.

Between the lines: This month, the Coalition on Homelessness, alongside other community groups, urged Breed to allocate $6.8 million in funding to the Department of Public Health to implement the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) program.

  • 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.

Sara Shortt, director of public policy and community organizing for supportive housing nonprofit HomeRise, told Axios via email that CART is still needed.

  • "Running a program through [the Department of Emergency Management], which is known as the body that conducts homeless sweeps, means that trust will be very low and result in much less receptiveness and collaboration from those on the streets," she said.
  • Plus, Shortt said HEART is focused on "clearing complaints from the public, and not on the actual needs of the homeless themselves or the neighbors wanting to help."

What to watch: As part of the pilot, the city must produce monthly reports detailing call volume, types of calls, outcomes, response time, requests for assistance from the police or other agencies, and more, according to the mayor's office.


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