City’s Response to 311 Homeless Calls Under Fire

The Healthy Streets Operation Center is meant to be a collaboration between city agencies to address homeless camps — but thus far, Public Works and SFPD have taken the lead.

Ashante Jones talks to an officer outside his tent while Public Works and SFPD sweep the encampment along Division Street. Photo by Jessica Christian

“They’ve thrown away seven tents of mine,” said a homeless man named Todd, as Department of Public Works employees and San Francisco Police Department officers loaded a city truck full of his belongings. “I’ve spent literally over 40 hours at the Public Works yard trying to get my stuff back. They’ve taken everything I own — thousands of dollars in Snap-on tools. There’s never anything [in the Public Works yard]. They say, ‘Oh, someone robbed the yard,’ or something. There’s always some excuse why they don’t have my stuff. They keep it all themselves, they trade it amongst themselves.” 

At a Local Homeless Coordinating Board meeting at City Hall on Monday, the Coalition on Homelessness played a video of Todd explaining his plight, as part of a slew of evidence the organization pulled together over the past few weeks. Their intent was to prove to the Board — which was created to advise the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing — that a new command center, created to better address complaints from city residents about homelessness, had become an underhanded tool to police and criminalize people living on our streets.

The Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) is meant to be a collaboration between city agencies. As thousands of complaints come in each month from S.F. residents about homeless people, their belongings, and their activities, a coordinated effort to respond to such issues was lacking. In January, a task force — made up of the Public Works, SFPD, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and the Department of Public Health — was created to respond to encampment issues in a comprehensive manner, offering street cleaning services along with medical care and shelter beds. The No. 1 goal: “Assist as many people as possible by connecting them to shelter, services, and housing.”

It sounds great on paper, but the reality of HSOC’s operations is quite different. The majority of the 4,000 complaints about homelessness filed with 311 each month are handled by SFPD and Public Works, with homeless outreach workers and public health staff missing in action. The program has no transparency, and what is available through 311’s data site is inconclusive and inconsistent. Notes for each 311 case consist of such vague statements as “appropriate enforcement action has been taken,” “area verified clean,” “complete,” done,” “encampment removed,” or “GOA” (presumably an abbreviation for “gone on arrival”).

 

There is also no oversight, and no sign that the city plans to provide any. At the hearing on Monday, key players in HSOC who were invited — Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, Mayor London Breed, and Commander David Lazar from SFPD — did not attend. (Ironically, the latter was said to be out of town presenting on the “success” of the HSOC to other communities.) The only representative who could speak to HSOC was Sam Dodge, the Public Works employee-liaison officer for the program. He had to take the brunt of heat from the Board; Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, showed up 37 minutes late and left early, after receiving a phone call.

“Until very recently, until HSOC, 99 percent of [311] calls were dispatched to Public Works and guys in trucks,” Dodge explained during his presentation. “They would go and clean, do what they could. They were not connecting to Health Department resources, they were not connected to Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing resources. What now is better is there are these resources that can be drawn upon by the frontline workers. That’s an improvement, and that’s something that was not there before January.”

But in a 10-minute presentation, Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, outlined just some of the information they’d dug up on HSOC, mostly through sunshine requests for email communications and 311 data. 

“HSOC relies primarily on SFPD officers and Public Works workers. We see that out on the streets, we see that in the reports coming back. The Homeless Department has a very minor role,” Friedenbach said.

The data backs this up. HSOC’s weekly resolution summaries show that SFPD and Public Works handle the majority of cases. In the first week of July, for example, 1,698 complaints came through 311 to HSOC, 1,351 of which were flagged “encampments with people.” Basic cleanup issues flagged “human waste” and “loose garbage” only numbered 117, and yet in total, 1,129 of that week’s cases were handled by Public Works.

 

Based on data and first-hand accounts from people living on the streets, Public Works definitely leads the charge in the vast majority of these cases. But SFPD isn’t far behind. During one sample week in the middle of June, when 2,031 cases were sent to HSOC, police responded to 342, despite only 182 of those cases being flagged as incidents where “aggressive behavior” was taking place.

The increased police presence at homeless camps has resulted in a sharp uptick of 647(e) citations, a misdemeanor charge frequently used for unlawfully dwelling on a sidewalk. Based on preliminary information SF Weekly has obtained from the Public Defender’s office, the District Attorney dropped many of these charges, but often after people spent a night in jail.

“Criminalization of homelessness and human rights violations against those on the streets have increased since HSOC’s initiation,” Friedenbach says. “From our outreach, we have been hearing since March from those on the streets that the sweeps have been relentless, leading to more property confiscation and move-along orders, which multiple social scientific studies have now shown lead to prolonged homelessness, barriers to obtain services and housing, negative health outcomes, and increased inequality.”

As for where the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is in these calls … The answer was short and sweet. When Kelley Cutler, a member of the Board, asked Kositsky how many encampment outreach workers were employed by the city, his answer was “three.” With more than 4,000 calls coming in to HSOC each month, the idea that three workers can handle a caseload of that magnitude is laughable.

And based on emails between Kositsky, Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and Police Chief William Scott, the Department of Homelessness doesn’t plan to get ahead of the issue.

“Our goal is no tents or structures in the city,” Kositsky wrote in a June 15 email to Nuru and Scott. “Public Works and SFPD will not clear tents from areas where there is an Encampment Resolution Team effort in progress. However, Public Works and SFPD can clear areas rapidly when there is not a designated resolution in progress, especially in the encampments we have already cleared. HSH will assist in these efforts when we have the capacity to do so. If not, Public Works and SFPD will still proceed to clear the area.”

The Coalition on Homelessness continues to sift through the data they sunshined. It’s disorganized, and many of the aforementioned “weekly resolution summaries” from HSOC have evolved, with different data points being tracked month to month. They’re also awaiting data from the Public Defender’s Office that could prove increased criminalization of San Francisco’s homeless residents.

In the meantime, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board has to decide on next steps. But after the hearing, their viewpoint on HSOC is pretty clear.

“The sidewalk is for use by the citizens of San Francisco, to me it doesn’t matter if you’re walking or lying on it,” Board Chairperson Del Seymour said. “I travel to a lot of cities, I don’t see none of this. This city has its own unique situation, and it’s up to us in the room to try to get some remedy to change this. A year ago, it wasn’t like this.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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