Commentary: Julie Pitta

A Compassionate Response to Homelessness

By Julie Pitta

We see it all too often: An unhoused neighbor in crisis. The San Francisco Police Department responds to tens of thousands of such calls each year. At a recent Police Commission meeting, Chris Herring, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the practice is costly and frequently results in harm for our City’s most vulnerable.

It’s a job the police department would be happy to offload. 

“Police officers and [Department of Public Works] workers were in wide consensus that the approach was not effective, and many found the work demeaning and demoralizing,” Herring informed police commissioners.

To that end, SF 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. One of the proposals suggested by homeless advocates was CART, short for Compassionate Alternative Response Team, a more effective answer to resolving conflict on city streets. 

Nearly a year ago, the SF Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pilot CART. The program had won a broad level of support from merchants, neighborhood groups and first responders. However, Mayor Breed has staunchly refused to fund it, taking the $3 million allocated by the board and handing it to Urban Alchemy, a program mired in controversy. It faces multiple lawsuits for sexual harassment and for moving people without cause.

Supporters are now calling for the program to receive $6.8 million in the upcoming budget, the amount required to fully fund the program and a fraction of the $600 million the City spends each year on policing.

CART is a tried and tested program modeled after CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets in Eugene, Oregon. For more than 30 years, CAHOOTS has dispatched outreach workers to assist those experiencing drug or mental health emergencies. Highly trained CAHOOTS teams offered on-the-spot counseling and service referrals to those in crisis at a cost of less than 2% 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. 

“The idea is to have very extensively trained and well-paid peer teams that look like and are of the community,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition of Homelessness. Among team members would be unhoused people themselves.

CART would complement existing homeless outreach programs like Mayor Breed’s Street Crisis Response Teams (SCRT), 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.

The Street Crisis Response Team was designed to respond to medical emergencies. CART’s aim is to respond to a range of conflicts that occur on the streets, like those that often occur between the housed and unhoused. For example, a CART team member, skilled at conflict medication, could encourage an unhoused person to leave a doorway (or other piece of private property). The conflict, between housed and unhoused, could be resolved without the need for a police intervention.

Vinnie Eng is one of CART’s tireless advocates. Eng had been a rising star in San Francisco’s competitive restaurant industry when his life was forever changed by personal tragedy. In 2012, Eng’s sister, Jazmyne, a Cambodian refugee suffering from schizophrenia, was killed by police officers while she waited for treatment at a Los Angeles mental health clinic. Jazmyne, a tiny woman “armed” with a small hammer, was shot twice by police officer. In minutes, she was dead. 

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.

Eng says police interventions all too frequently end in violence – and even death – for those in distress. Experts agree. 

“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.”

San Francisco has seen an alarming rise in the number of attacks on unhoused residents. A North Beach gallery owner was recently caught on camera hosing down an elderly black woman. A Marina man was filmed attacking homeless people with bear spray. It’s not hard to see how these incidents can end in lasting harm. As they consider the many requests for funding during the upcoming budgeting process, Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors should make CART among its top priorities. 

Julie Pitta is a member of the executive board of the Berniecrats. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at Follow her on Twitter: @juliepitta

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