Time to Get CART Rolling

Despite a pledge to redirect funds from the San Francisco Police Department and much rhetoric about police accountability and reform in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Mayor London Breed has been making  a lot of statements recently about the need for increased policing.  This was a key part of her “Tenderloin Plan”, which promised to address a range of street conditions including drug use, tents on the sidewalk, mental health needs, trash and drug dealing. While her staff walked this back after being grilled by the Board of Supervisors, she later fiercely reiterated her commitment to come down hard on the Tenderloin streets with increased police activity. Soon after the Tenderloin Plan passed, she was also calling for more police funding and had planned on requesting a budget supplemental, until she realized she could come up with the money elsewhere.  

Just this week, in her state of the city speech, the mayor reiterated her support for law enforcement as she vowed to add more police and spoke passionately about why more police  are needed for public safety. 

Meanwhile, the mayor, other city officials, the press and some social media users have been pounding the drum about the problem of increasing homelessness. The Mayor has made it clear that she is frustrated and angry with so many living on the streets and she has stated  that she will be taking bold action using law enforcement  to address it as they “make life hell” for drug dealers as well.

What Mayor Breed can’t seem to acknowledge is that the call for more policing is directly in conflict with her interest in getting people off the sidewalks and into housing.  When you have plenty of resources for policing but very little for things like homeless outreach and services, you are just left with a police response to homelessness. This means the likelihood of people getting housed or helped decreases, as interactions between houseless people and the cops increase.  

Rather than offering help, the police push unhoused communities from one block to the next, destabilizing them further and making it even harder to get off the streets. This failed strategy criminalizes people—folks may be ticketed for blocking a curb, or having an open container, or loitering. When people are inevitably fined, yet cannot pay these tickets, these citations blow up into warrants that form a barrier keeping them from getting into housing. A cop responding to a call about a homeless person or encampment might check on outstanding warrants while there, landing people in jail for unpaid tickets and causing them to miss their housing appointment or other important appointments on the path to getting housing. 

Cops very often conduct encampment sweeps where homeless peoples’ possessions are lost, damaged or stolen. Those things might include very important documents related to their ability to get housing or critical medicines. The damage done to unhoused people is well-documented by the project Stolen Belonging, which documents the various precious items stolen during sweeps. Another problem with sweeps—and part of why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against sweeps—is that when folks on the street can’t remain in a consistent location, outreach workers, medical providers and social workers find it extremely difficult to maintain relationships with them and lead them into housing. 

One other critical reason why a law enforcement response to homelessness is a bad idea: People get hurt. There is the very real trauma and sometimes PTSD that people experience when dealing with someone in uniform holding a gun. Police sometimes verbally or physically abuse and bully unhoused people, with no repercussions.  There have also been numerous cases of violations of human rights and civil liberties. And, in the worst case scenario, people die.  Police have murdered too many houseless people to risk that happening again. Rest in power, Luis Gongora Pat and Jessica Williams. 

Law enforcement as a response to homelessness will only prolong unhoused people’s homelessness. A further investment into SFPD will get the mayor further from where she states she wants to be with solving homelessness. So why then has she thus far refused to support the community-developed CART model? The Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) is a non-law-enforcement response to street homelessness that can do the very things the police are now called upon to do, but in a way that’s not only more effective and compassionate, but also less costly and carries no risk of violence.

CART came out of a movement of advocates, homeless folks, service providers, community-based organizations, academics and community leaders who spent over a year meeting, planning, researching and finally developing a program model.  CART can be funded with roughly $6 million per year and would be run by a community organization (rather than by a City agency). The model involves teams of peers with lived experience of homelessness paired with a social worker. The teams would respond to appropriate homelessness-related 911 calls, diverting the 65,000 calls a year that now go through the police. 

The CART model achieves exactly what the mayor laid out as an objective when she introduced a reform plan in 2020 that called for an end to police responding to non-criminal activity and a systematic response plan that will connect community-based services to respond to homelessness.  

Due to strong community advocacy, CART was funded for $3 million in last year’s budget cycle (half of the annual cost). Considering the $18.5 million saved by not spending on the police calls, the mayor could easily fund the additional $3 million needed from the SFPD budget.  But we don’t even need that to get going.  We can start CART now and fund it through the rest of the year, until the next budget cycle with the funding we have now. 

That’s right: We have the funding. We have widespread community support. We have a well-developed, thoughtful, highly researched model. We have community-based organizations with the track records and the capacity to run the program. And we have a clear, dire need. 

And yet, CART remains unimplemented.  The community has made this easy for the mayor. We made the case. We gave her the blueprint. We got it funded.  Unfortunately, she is still dragging her heels. She has taken no action to make CART a reality, even while she continues to call for a police response to the homelessness crisis. 

CART is stuck in bureaucratic limbo. The Mayor has directed it to be run through the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), which has yet to launch it even after several months. But even beyond the delays, housing CART with this department is unacceptable and would erase the whole intent of having it be community-based. DEM is closely tied to law enforcement and does not have the track record or expertise to make it function, or the experienced staff or familiarity with homeless services or unhoused communities to make it successful.

CART should be housed in the Department of Public Health (DPH),which has the mechanisms already in place to contract with a community group. DPH also has qualified, experienced staff who understand outreach, homeless issues, case management and are steeped in the values of a harm reduction, housing first and client-centered approach, as well as trauma-informed care. 

Mayor Breed needs to direct DPH to implement CART. That’s all that needs to happen to produce this historic first where homeless issues will be responded to without law enforcement. After too many months of waiting, we can see that she will not do that without a serious push. 

We do not have the luxury to wait any longer. We can not afford to have more people staying on the streets longer during one of our worst homelessness crises. We can not continue to endure the frustration of ineffective responses that leave our houseless neighbors on our sidewalks.  Most importantly, we can not risk even one more homeless death at the hands of SFPD.  

We must collectively demand that Mayor Breed GET CART ROLLING! 

Sign our petition to demand the Mayor get CART rolling here: 

To learn more about CART: Cartsf.org