Commentary

A Compassionate Approach to Homelessness

By Julie Pitta

In 2012, Jazmyne Eng, a Cambodian refugee suffering from schizophrenia, was killed by police officers while waiting for treatment at a Los Angeles mental health clinic. Eng, a tiny woman, was “armed” with a small hammer. She was tased by one officer and shot twice by another. In minutes, she was dead. 

Jazmyne Eng’s death changed the course of her younger brother’s life. Vinny Eng was a rising star in San Francisco’s competitive restaurant industry. After losing his sister, Eng threw himself into advocacy work on behalf of the mentally ill. Seven years later, he walked away from a glamorous job as general manager and wine director of Tartine Manufactory to devote himself full-time to political activism.

Today, Vinny Eng tirelessly promotes the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART), a program calling for a community response to issues impacting unhoused San Franciscans. CART, Eng says, should replace police as responders to issues involving the homeless. Police interventions all too frequently end in violence and even death. 

“Prior to George Floyd’s killing, a lot of families impacted by police violence were conditioned to believe there wasn’t an alternative to policing; that there wasn’t enough political will to think about an alternative,” Eng said. In the aftermath of Floyd’s tragic death, that belief changed dramatically.

Supervisors Matt Haney and Hillary Ronen led the change with Mental Health SF, an overhaul of the City’s mental health system. Among its proposals, was mental health outreach for homeless people in crisis. In December 2019, the Board of Supervisors, by a unanimous vote, approved the legislation.

Last year, Mayor London Breed formed a steering committee under the oversight of the City’s Human Rights Commission to identify alternatives to a police response to non-violent 911 and 311 calls. The committee, comprised of representatives from City agencies including the San Francisco Police and Public Health departments, as well as organizations that work in mental health and homeless services, will present its findings to the mayor in the coming weeks.

Among the proposals being considered is CART. Before leaving office, Richmond District Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer earmarked $2 million from the SFPD budget for alternatives to policing the City’s homeless population. For fiscal year 2021-2022, CART is asking for an additional $4 million from the SFPD budget for a total of $6 million request. That sum represents a tiny fraction of the more than $600 million the City budgets for the police department each year.

CART is modeled after CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, a successful program in Eugene, Ore. For more than 30 years, CAHOOTS has dispatched outreach workers to aid those experiencing drug or mental health emergencies. Highly trained CAHOOTS teams offer on-the-spot counseling and service referrals to those in crisis at a cost less than 2 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s yearly budget.

Like CAHOOTS, well-trained and professionally paid CART teams would respond to 911 and 311 calls, offering a range of services including conflict mediation and first-aid, as well as referrals for mental health and substance abuse counseling. CART would complement existing homeless outreach programs like Mayor Breed’s Street Crisis Response Teams (SCRT), being piloted in the Bayview, Mission and Tenderloin neighborhoods. SCRT was designed to ease the burdens placed on public services like San Francisco General Hospital, the Fire Department and the SFPD by about 100 high-needs individuals.

CART’s mission is broader than SCRT’s, which was designed for crisis-response. An example Eng frequently cites is a CART response to a 911 call to move a homeless individual from private property. The outreach team would act as mediator between the complainant and unhoused person, facilitating an amicable relocation.

Equally important is CART’s plan for community education. “We have to change the narrative regarding homelessness,” Eng says. “There’s this belief that if you are homeless, you must have done something wrong.” CART will work toward developing community empathy toward the most vulnerable San Franciscans.

CART has earned the enthusiastic support from homeless advocates. “This team is not going to stop the homeless crisis,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “But it is going to stop us from wasting money on the police response.” 

In 2019, the San Francisco Police Department responded to roughly 65,000 calls related to unhoused people. Many involved mental-health crises like the one that ended in tragedy for Jazmyne Eng. “Cops across the country have homeless units,” said Paul Boden, the executive director of the not-for-profit Western Regional Advocacy Project. “Why? Not to protect homeless people. You’re not trying to mitigate homelessness. You’re trying to mitigate the presence of homelessness.”

Jazmyne Eng’s death was an inconceivable loss for the Engs, a family already traumatized by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It was also preventable. Vinny Eng wants other families to avoid similar pain. “It shouldn’t take a tragedy to compel change,” Eng said.

Vinny Eng of the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) will speak at RDR’s upcoming general meeting scheduled for Monday, May 17th from 5:30 to 7 pm. To attend, register at May General Meeting.

Julie Pitta is a member of the governing board of Richmond District Rising. Richmond District Rising builds electoral and political power for working class people, people of color, and other historically oppressed communities to ensure a progressive, liberated and equitable Richmond District. You can email her at sfrichmondrising@gmail.com

2 replies »

  1. How do we get Mayor Breed on board to support CART. What a fabulous program. I look forward to Vinny Eng’s presentation to RDR, and to seeing this program become a part of San Francisco’s vision and future.

    Like

  2. Compassion? Caring? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the need for these toward everyone…including those we may not know!

    Like

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