By TJ Johnston
The group of San Francisco city departments tasked with tackling street homelessness has been blasted by two city panels in the last month.
The Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) gave progress reports at the request of the Police Commission and the Local Homeless Coordinating Board at the bodies’ meetings on August 7 and August 20, respectively.
After HSOC representatives gave presentations to both boards, the lead agencies of HSOC — the Police Department and Department of Public Works — were scrupulously questioned on just how successful they’ve been on their mission.
Launched last year, HSOC proclaims its duty as “a service-first approach to addressing encampments,” while at the same time maintaining street cleanliness, according to its handouts at both meetings. Joining police and Public Works in their efforts — at least on paper — are the Departments of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Public Health and Emergency Management, among other agencies.
But it’s often police and Public Works only who are represented at these operations, usually called “resolutions.” HSOC’s tactics in clearing out street encampments — from Public Works’ staff throwing away residents’ possessions to police enforcing the operations — has drawn criticism from homeless people and their allies.
Kelly Cutler, a human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet, noted that neighbors’ complaints drive the whole process, and
the lack of adequate social services dooms HSOC’s stated mission to failure.
“The goal of HSOC is responding to complaints about visible homelessness,” she said. “If the complaint is resolved and it doesn’t connect people to housing, then it’s not really resolved.”
One measurable performance for which HSOC has claimed victory is fewer tents and encampments on the streets. The number of tents and improvised structures decreased from 568 in July 2018, when it first started counting them quarterly, to 451 in July 2019 — something that Mayor London Breed has been trumpeting.
At the Police Commission hearing, a slide from HSOC’s PowerPoint detailing its achievements read: “HSOC resolved 25 large encampments of 6+ tents (88% reduction in sites during 2018),” though in some places bigger camps continue to cluster.
But the level of services, such as shelter and physical and behavioral health care, is lacking, and the services are inadequately offered, Chris Herring told the panel overseeing the Police Department.
Herring, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, also presented at the August 7 meeting. He pointed out that shelter and navigation center stays offered usually last no more than seven days and that most shelters won’t allow camp residents to bring their tents and property. While the number of police officers at HSOC more than doubled in the last year from 24 to 58, only 5% of homeless people are meaningfully offered shelter, he said.
As far as assessing how homeless people qualify for services, “How are officers making that determination in the first place?” Herring said to the commission. “We can’t say for sure without data, but our concern is that constantly moving people around, taking their tents, and only taking them off the streets for a few days at a time has actually worsened the homeless crisis.”
Where people displaced from their tents go after their shelter stays expire is another unknown, Herring said. There’s no data comparing outcomes of people in encampment resolutions where the Department of Public Health takes the lead with those where the police and Public Works drive.
Deputy Chief David Lazar, who commands HSOC’s police complement, tried to soften the brunt by telling the commission that his unit aids in the “decriminalization of homelessness.” Lazar displayed bar-graph charts connecting a decrease in police-issued “quality of life” citations and bookings to service availability. But this could owe more to a recent U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruling that ticketing and arresting for homelessness-related acts without providing services is overly punitive than police acting more mercifully.
While fewer tickets and bookings occurred throughout the last year, it’s unclear which of the three dozen city and state homelessness-related codes were enforced.
But Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, doubts that HSOC’s citation numbers tell the whole story.
“They’ve not provided what citations they’re counting, so we don’t know if it’s just HSOC (that’s issuing them) or citywide,” she said. “We know the proportion of homeless people in jail has doubled. HSOC itself has increased their response to homelessness than decreased” with the surge of police officers in the unit.”
Commissioner Petra DeJesus pressed HSOC representatives for numbers such as how many citations have police issued and what proportion of tents get destroyed in sweeps.
Lazar replied that 73 citations were given and of those, 47 were charged by the District Attorney’s office from September 2018 to May 2019, but the owners can reclaim their property from Public Works once the case is over.
“But the bottom line is that they don’t get their property back, that property is being destroyed,” DeJesus said.
When DeJesus grilled Lazar on outcomes of shelter stays after camps get removed, Lazar replied they stopped taking people to the Providence Baptist Church shelter in the Bayview neighborhood because it was ineffective.
“We’re going to stick with navigation (centers),” he said.
Commissioner John Hamasaki also requested specifics on where tents go after sweeps, and he said that whenever he drives around the city and sees sweeps in progress, he doesn’t see Public Works bagging and tagging — just belongings thrown onto a truck, and that unsettles him.
“It’s horrifying to see someone living under those circumstances,” he said. “But when that last bit of shelter, that last piece of clothing and belongings are taken away from them, I find that cruel and inhumane, and it shocks the conscience.”
LOCAL HOMELESS COORDINATING BOARD
Almost two weeks later at the Main Library, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, an advisory panel to the City, also queried HSOC at what’s to be the first quarterly public meeting between the two groups.
Like the police commission, the board also asked about the outcomes of temporary shelter placements. Homelessness Department director Jeff Kositsky replied that the focus of HSOC is to “get people connected with services” and is “not responsible for programmatic outcomes.”
That caveat was also indicated in a footnote in the City Controller’s evaluation on HSOC from last spring. It noted that police officers make referrals, as opposed to “linkages,” to Homelessness or Public Health, and “at present, there is no means to track how many HSOC referrals can result in linkage to care.”
That might also explain why out of 347 placements in weeklong beds, only five resulted in successful exits to other programs.
“The results were not very good, just a 2% success rate,” Kositsky said. He added that HSOC is due to change its policy in September with a full rollout by the end of the year, though details won’t be available until the next board meeting.
The Coordinating Board also inquired why only eight Mission District camp residents out of 150 — about 5% — accepted a seven-day shelter bed in April 2018, while more accept placements at navigation centers.
Kositsky replied that overall acceptance rates at larger encampments is about 65%. He also said that Homelessness and Public Health, along with the UC San Francisco, are working to improve numbers and outcomes.
But Coordinating Board member Kelley Cutler said these operations are still led by law enforcement, and despite its purported “leading with services” approach, HSOC conducts more sweeps. She cited some key indicators of the CIty’s progress.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” she said. “I’m looking at the shelter waitlist, I’m looking at the point-in-time count of people on the streets have increased. It doesn’t add up there wouldn’t be larger encampment resolutions.”
Conceding the increase in the homeless population, Kositsky pointed out that more people in San Francisco have been entering homelessness than leaving it.
“We are still seeing three new people for every one we house in any given year,” he said.
Public Works director Mohammed Nuru appeared uncomfortable and was barely audible when pressed about the recovery of homeless people’s property once it’s swept. The Coordinating Board asked him how many “bag and tag” confiscations were carried out and how many people were able to retrieve their goods.
Nuru told the board that there were 400 incidents where Public Works took homeless people’s belongings to the department’s storage yard between September 2018 and February 2019. He admitted that in that same time frame, 58 people retrieved 151 items from storage — a retrieval rate of a little more than one-third.
But Nuru’s department is already taking flak after reports exposed Public Works employees ignoring the “bag and tag” policy and even keeping the items to sell later. A video from the Solen Belonging project showed police and Public Works tossing away property during a sweep, and a former employee confessing to not following procedure because no one told him about it.
After audience members called for a less police-centered procedure during public comment, coordinating board chairman Del Seymour said, “Seems what I’m hearing from the public is HSH (the Homelessness Department) needs to be on the street. More HSH, HOT [Homeless Outreach] team or whoever is in your department. Maybe we need better representation.”