by Thomas K. Pendergast
The complications of dealing with the homeless population were explored at a community meeting on Nov. 1, hosted by District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, where she gathered city officials to address the public.
Focusing on the Richmond District, representatives from the SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), SF Police Department, SF District Attorney’s office, SF Department of Public Health (DPH), SF Department of Public Works (DPW), park rangers from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and various homeless support professionals gathered at the Richmond Senior Center to share information with local citizens.
“Homelessness is an increasingly urgent issue across San Francisco, as we all well know, and also in the Richmond District; a complex issue with many causes,” Fewer said. “The Richmond has always had homeless residents but we are now seeing an increase both in numbers as well as visibility. I’ve lived in the Richmond District for more than 50 years.”
The HSH is the department that runs the Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT). Its spokesperson, Randy Quezada, gave some historical background to the issue and then discussed the current situation.
“The roots of modern homelessness probably go back to federal divestment from affordable housing production and development,” Quezada said. “And you can trace back and see how, if you go back to the late 1970s going through now, the HUD budget has been decimated, essentially. The funds that were there to support people going through hard times aren’t there. That’s a ‘big picture’ thing.
“The causes individual homelessness are a lot of the things that we think about. They are the confluence of a long, painful series of events; the loss of a job followed by a serious medical situation, followed by an eviction … people wind up on the streets,” he said.
“Oftentimes, when we’re thinking about chronic homelessness, we see the substance abuse disorders. We see the significant persistent mental illnesses.”
David Lazar, a commander with the SFPD, said the Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) opened on Jan. 16 as a collaborative effort between the police department, DPH, DPW, HSH, the 3-1-1 information office and the Department of Emergency Management.
“It’s like an emergency command post that is set up in San Francisco to address homelessness seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m,” Lazar said. “Up on the board we have all of the 3-1-1 calls, we have our mission of the day; we have our zones we’re working in … it’s a one-of-a-kind collaboration.”
Edwin Batongbacal said his division of the DPH provides mental health and substance use treatment disorder services.
“Of course the challenge for us is engagement with clients so we make it a point that we don’t just stay in our clinics waiting for people,” Batongbacal said. “We have mental health specialists working with HOT to make sure that we’re engaging with people and doing motivational interviewing so we’re able to establish a relationship to help them address their immediate needs so they can partner with us toward greater recovery.
“We’ve also explored the use of conservatorships, to the extent that we can, because people have civil liberties that are protected, but we do make use of conservatorship laws,” he added.
Lazar said anyone with issues involving homeless people should start by calling 3-1-1, which is now “streamlined” to connect with the HSOC if the inquiry is homeless related, thus taking it outside of the 9-1-1 emergency and police non-emergency phone systems.
“What we do is triage that and make determinations about who should respond, and when they should respond and what our plan is. By doing that, it frees up the officers to respond quickly to other calls for service because we are having our homeless outreach officers deal with that,” Lazar said.
As for the issue of homeless encampments, Lazar said: “What we have been doing is issuing citations, taking the tents as evidence, and then cleaning up the encampment. It’s not against the law to sleep somewhere; we just don’t want a structure, a tent or a tarp, for several reasons. San Diego had a Hepatitis A outbreak and we don’t want that here. There is a cleanliness issue … we’re going to try and lead with services.”
Vietnam Nguyen of the SF District Attorney’s office is assigned to address “quality of life” crimes citywide. Most of his cases involve misdemeanor crimes, including illegal camping. Among the legal challenges his office is facing is a new law.
“Where our job becomes increasingly hard is that there is a new case law, as of September, saying that we can’t criminalize illegal camping unless it’s verified that there is a shelter bed available for that person and that person has refused it,” Nguyen said.
If city representatives meet the legal requirement and manage to get someone charged with a misdemeanor, then they can also get a stay-away order for that person from being in a specific location.
“Of course that’s not a solution but it is able to get that person off that particular area and give community members some relief,” he said.
Richmond District resident Elyse Blatt gave kudos to the HOT team and asked a question, as she related an experience she had with a homeless person.
“I had a homeless girl in front of my house on 14th Avenue in the greenbelt,” Blatt said. “We got the HOT team out. I want to say it worked out really well that night. They came, they took her … and we got her out. I said to her, ‘I’d like to call a family member of yours.’ I ended up calling about 10 numbers and finally got a relative to answer. They said, ‘How come nobody has ever called us? She’s been gone for two years and been to different shelters and no one ever called us.’ So, I’d like to know if you ever call family members?”
Mecca Cannariato, current program director for the HSH, said yes, they do, but only with permission.
“We always need the client’s permission to contact anyone,” Cannariato said. “We do that a lot, but we need permission to connect.”