City’s Approach Produces Harm, More Than Reduces 

On January 16, 2018, The City and County of San Francisco launched the Healthy Streets Operations Center (HSOC) in order to better coordinate the City’s response both to homeless encampments and, according to a 2019 report from the SF Controller’s office, ‘behaviors that impact quality of life, such as public drug use and sales.’ Instead of effectively addressing the needs of unhoused San Franciscans, what emerged was a harsh system, led by law enforcement, with an emphasis on criminalization and displacement. By August 2018, the City’s coordinated response to homelessness had become, in effect, the City’s coordinated response to the complaints of housed folks, and valuable City resources, including Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), were being dispatched and directed based on complaints to SF’s 311 customer service system. San Francisco has more than twice as many SFPD homeless response officers as there are members of HOT, and a seemingly endless supply of Public Works cleaning crews, so much of the city’s response to encampments has ended up being encampment sweeps, with no offers of adequate alternative shelter.

This 311 complaint-driven Guns and Garbage Trucks displacement model has survived for so long largely because the main metrics used to measure ‘success’ have been quarterly tent counts, the number of service referrals made by HSOC, and the volume of homelessness-related 311 complaints. Without a corresponding reduction in overall homelessness, any reduction of the number of tents on San Francisco’s streets reflects a reduction in the visibility and safety of unhoused San Franciscans. Service referrals are meaningless unless they end in actual connections, and the acceptance rates of shelter and services offered by HOT have plummeted under the current model. The connection rate of service referrals made by SFPD officers has always been abysmally low, and making them the main first responders to homeless-related calls has negatively impacted the effectiveness of all city departments involved in addressing homelessness. 

In a city full of harm reduction heavyweights and heroes, much of what the City does when using law enforcement to address homelessness instead ends up being incredibly harm productive. HSOC has always trumpeted its methodology as being “trauma-informed,” but the Whac-A-Mole encampment sweeps inflict repeated, multiple traumas on those being displaced. For those who are forced to live in public spaces, sweeps cause repeated loss of personal property — including vehicles, tents and other shelter, survival gear and life-saving medications — as well as citations and arrests, placing more financial and legal barriers that can negatively affect access to services, housing, and employment.

On Thursday, February 27, at the quarterly HSOC meeting of San Francisco’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board, City officials admitted that the complaint-driven HSOC model of targeting and dispatching its resources hasn’t been effective at addressing the needs of those suffering on our streets. According to the City’s data, 95% of unhoused folks who stayed in a San Francisco shelter or Navigation Center in 2019 returned to the streets at the end of their stay, up from 58% in 2018, and acceptance rates of services offered are at their lowest since the inception of HSOC. 

Though scant on details, HSH director Jeff Kositsky said that beginning in March, HSOC would no longer target and dispatch most of its resources based on 311 resident complaints, and HOT would be returning to its more effective, pre-August 2018 ‘zone’ model of focussing on the areas of SF most impacted by homelessness. By having HOT focus time and resources on building relationships with unhoused residents in these ‘zones,’ instead of being dispatched back and forth across the City, Kositsky said he expected to see the rates of engagement and acceptance of services and shelter climb.

For advocates, though there are still many concerns, especially around the role of law enforcement in any future HSOC model. For unhoused residents living outside of HOT’s zones of operation, SFPD and Public Works sweep crews could still be first responders, and 311 would still be receiving complaints under any model. The 311 dispatch system needs major changes – both to what types of calls generate a response, and what City agencies get deployed to respond to those calls. Unless an unhoused individual is in distress or seeking assistance, a call to City Hall to demand more housing, shelter and services is often much more appropriate than a call to 311. 

Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness and a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, has long expressed skepticism toward the City’s previous claims of success in resolving street homelessness.   

“I attended a community meeting the day after the dismal results of HSOC were presented at the LHCB, and SFPD and City staff continued to present HSOC as being a successful program that will address their concerns by helping the people living on the street in this neighborhood,” She said. “If they were being honest they would have just told community members that they plan to continue to send out law enforcement to displace people because the City doesn’t have the resources to help them.”