On January 19, San Francisco’s Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) working group presented its plan to end the law enforcement response to homelessness and to roll out a new community-run response team. “What kind of city would be possible if unhoused neighbors were treated as worthy of life and dignity rather than as a nuisance or a threat?” This is the fundamental question driving the CART working group’s mission to replace the police as first responders to situations involving unhoused members of the community. Instead of police, the group is calling for the staffing of well-trained and well-paid peers with lived experience of homelessness.

In this city, there is a longstanding pattern of police as the primary responders to homelessness-related and most often complaint-based 911 calls leading to problematic, harmful, and, yes, even deadly encounters between unhoused members of the community and police officers. For years, advocates with the Coalition on Homelessness and many other organizations have observed the long-term harm and trauma inflicted on unhoused individuals because of such encounters. 

In January 2019–notably before the national calling of “defund the police”–the San Francisco Police Commission passed a resolution that called for an end to police response to homelessness and for the Board of Supervisors to create a stakeholders’ group to develop an alternative. Under the leadership of Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, the first meetings were organized in February 2020 with the goal to design an inclusive process with community members, key city departments and elected officials at the table. Staff from the offices of four supervisors who have high numbers of unhoused residents in their districts were invited, and as an initial step the Board of Supervisors secured $2 million in reserve for this future program. 

When the pandemic hit, the process was sidelined for a few months but then reinitiated in July 2020. The Coalition on Homelessness hired Patrick Brown, senior consultant at The Justice Collective, to facilitate the process. A large group of stakeholders–including the participating members of 28 community organizations, city departments, elected officials, unhoused constituents, and academics–was convened. The goal of this working group was to develop a concrete plan for the implementation of a new form of community response to homelessness. In short, an alternative to police, not a form of alternative policing. 

The group decided that the new model would be called Compassionate Alternative Response Team: C.A.R.T.

The working group met weekly for seven months and conducted almost 100 surveys with unhoused individuals, gathering their input on what an alternative to police response should look like. Furthermore, the group was in frequent contact with existing community response programs in the U.S., in particular with the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program from Eugene, Oregon. Based on that exchange, the CART working group identified a number of best practices of how to run a community-based response team. 

By the end of the seven months, the CART working group had finalized a 70-page report outlining a new “Community Plan for San Francisco.” 

The CART street survey 

As mentioned, close to 100 unhoused individuals were surveyed as part of the development of the CART plan, and personally I had the pleasure to analyze all the responses with a group of volunteers. The respondents ranged from ages 18 to 67 and were interviewed in seven districts throughout the city. The survey questions were designed to elicit a variety of responses regarding what a non-police response should entail. For example, people were asked hypothetical questions about how merchants’ complaints about people resting outside should be addressed and how they would like to see conflicts rising from heated arguments among peers and neighbors resolved.

Reading and analyzing all the responses was truly insightful. First of all, the majority of the people that were surveyed had lots of ideas and many detailed recommendations of what an alternative should look like, who should be staffed, and what skills and services the response should have. On the other hand, there were quite a few individuals who, while not necessarily having a clear vision of what an alternative could be like, definitely shared much about the shortcomings of the current police response. For example: “Police should have been more understanding,” one respondent said. “Police should have been respectful. They don’t respect us and make our situation worse often times.” Another said they wished “not (to) be interrupted or disrespected by [the police]; not have [their] life threatened by them.” 

When asked what they would consider a positive outcome from an encounter with an alternative response team, responses ranged from providing housing, food and other services to offering medical and mental health assistance to simply avoiding arrest. In short, they were open to any option that wasn’t punitive, criminalizing or shaming.

Essentially, rather than being met with an assumption-based, stigmatizing attitude, respondents expressed a desire for humane treatment and respect from an alternative response team, without force and aggression, but still with a good understanding of the traumas of homelessness. In addition, they said the team must be staffed by people with lived experience and are familiar with the community they serve. Finally, the survey participants expressed that the team should be well equipped with resources to offer, such as housing, shelter, food, hygiene, medical assistance, harm reduction services, and transportation, so that they could be helped in a drug, psychiatric or (minor) medical crisis. 

On the road to implementation 

Getting the CART program implemented will undoubtedly be a heavy lift, as it would revolutionize how San Francisco deals with street homlessness. At this stage, the Community Plan has been published, and the process of gaining widespread support for the implementation has been kicked off. The CART working group has met with the Mayor’s Steering Committee working on alternatives to policing and hopes to keep collaborating with that committee. On a daily basis, San Franciscans are contacting the CART working group, complimenting the cause and expressing their wish to volunteer and support CART. But support for this would have to come from all stakeholders. 

With the support of Police Commissioner John Hamasaki and Supervisor Matt Haney–who is the new chair of the Budget Committee–the CART plan has one foot in the door to success. However, there are still major challenges to implementing CART: Winning broad public support, securing the proposed total annual budget of $6.825 million funded from additional cuts to the police budget, and initiating the program by May 2021. 

And even once the budget is secured and implementation is underway, the continued struggle to ensure accountability and avert corruption will continue. Making sure CART responds to the needs of unhoused individuals will demand ongoing involvement from all constituents and stakeholders. In short, the long-term commitment and scrutiny of advocates and community organizations will be paramount to CART’s success. 

Visit the CART-SF website for more information: www.cartsf.org/home

A version of this story was originally published in Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper. 

Stella Kunkat is currently working for the CART SF project and interning with the Human Rights Work Group at the Coalition on Homelessness.