San Francisco’s Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) was envisioned by a broad coalition of homeless people, activists, service provider’s and community members as a safe and dignified way to respond to complaints from the public about street-based folks. The idea was to replace the current—often traumatic—police response with a compassionate response rooted in meeting the needs of those on the street. After years of advocacy, CART was finally funded and set to be implemented, and the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) under which it would be housed accepted bids from providers to take over operations of the program. But rather than opting for a caring community-based approach, the contract was awarded to Urban Alchemy (UA), an organization with a history of harassing and displacing unhoused people and very minimal experience supporting homeless services. If this happens, years of hard work to move the city away from policing poor people will be undermined.
So, how did we get here?
According to Department of Emergency Management 911 chief Robert Smuts, on a typical day, San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers respond to 179 homelessness-related incidents—that’s 1,253 per week—most often resulting in move-along orders, citations, and destruction of property. These operations systematically limit homeless people’s access to services, housing and jobs, while damaging their health, safety and well-being.
The Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) was established in January 2018 as a proposed remedy for complaints about tent encampments. Angry callers did not want to have their calls diverted away from the police, which resulted in a ballooning effect on complaints, increasing reports of violations of the Sit/Lie ordinance by 263 percent. This led the City to invest more resources in increasing police presence. In 2019, up to 52 cops worked under HSOC and at police stations focused specifically on complaints about homelessness. Over the course of that year, according to Christopher Herriing, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Los Angeles, due to the additional staffing, nearly one-third of San Francisco’s jail population identified as homeless, and unsheltered homelessness rose by 19 percent.
Recognizing that additional police resources were not exiting individuals out of homelessness, the San Francisco Police Commission unanimously passed a resolution in January 2020 calling for a more effective response to homelessness to be developed that would eliminate the use of police officers as a first and primary response. A stakeholder group was established, forming a coalition of those impacted by police violence and community-based organizations to work in partnership with representatives from the Mayor’s office, staff from the Board of Supervisors and City agencies.
Despite being sidelined due to COVID-19, the process started in July 2020 with over 50 participants working collectively. City departments and officials, community organizations, mental health consumers, people with lived experience of homelessness, service providers, advocates and academics worked together to envision a new way of approaching street crisis. From the start, the group was intentional about centering unhoused individuals in the design of the alternative. Ninety-five unhoused neighbors, ages 18 to 67, were surveyed. Their responses were foundational in establishing a new response model that would eliminate police responses, which have exacerbated racial disparities and disproportionately left those who are unhoused, disabled, and experiencing poverty feeling as if they are disposable.
The new model would be called Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART). CART was designed to change the City’s existing emergency communications, dispatch, and response strategy to address the social and behavioral health needs occurring in public spaces.
CART was designed with two components:
1) CART Dispatch Response: The first would provide a specialized non-police alternative dispatch response to calls from and calls about unhoused neighbors in crisis, and the establishment of a new hotline to call CART directly. CART would be dispatched to respond to non-life-threatening 911 calls involving unhoused people in the City, either on the street or in temporary shelters. Key would be a Collaborating, Learning and Adapting Working Group (CLA) between CART and other City departments to review call-taking and dispatch incident data, no less than on a quarterly basis. CLA would monitor and evaluate alternative responses to crises and determine necessary adaptations.
2) CART Community Resilience Building: The second component would serve as a community-strengthening hub to empower housed neighbors to more “compassionately respond” directly to their unhoused neighbors. They would be invited to portions of the staff training and learn about the social service system in San Francisco, how to center unhoused people’s needs and advocate alongside them for appropriate levels of care.
The two-prong scope of the CART program would divert a significant number of homelessness-related calls away from SFPD, while building capacity within San Francisco’s neighborhoods to de-escalate, thus reducing police interactions with those experiencing homelessness. CART responses would focus on the well-being of the unhoused person rather than the complaint of the caller, affirming the civil rights of those experiencing homelessness.
On a typical day, SFPD officers respond to 179 homelessness-related incidents—that’s 1,253 per week—most often resulting in move-along orders, citations, and destruction of property.
This approach was inspired by the longest standing and most successful program called CAHOOTS, which operated in Eugene, Oregon and replaced the police response to homeless people in crisis. CAHOOTS is a community-based mobile crisis response program launched by the non-governmental health center White Bird Clinic in 1989. This program dispatches two-person teams to address mental health crises, as well as other conflicts or crisis situations, including situations related to homelessness, substance use and basic medical needs. The teams rely on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques to provide a non-violent resolution of crisis situations. Incoming calls come through Eugene’s 911 system or the police non-emergency number. At dispatch, staff is trained to recognize non-violent, behavioral health-related situations and route those calls to CAHOOTS. The program is funded through Eugene’s Public Safety Budget and is estimated to save the city of Eugene around $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.Measurable outcomes of the CART program would include:
-Reduce police dispatches to homelessness-related quality-of-life complaints.
-Reduce the number of individuals transported to the emergency department for low acuity medical-related issues that could instead be addressed in a pre-hospital care setting.
-Reduce the number of behavioral health and lower acuity medical calls traditionally responded to by the Police and Fire Departments, and improve outcomes for those on the streets.
-Reduce the number of homelessness-related calls to dispatch, in areas where the CART program’s community-strengthening interventions have occurred.
CART holds those who are on the margins of our community at the center of proper systems of care that result in dignity—instead of neglect—from institutions, investing in solution providers that live in the community and who see the challenges daily as residents. It proposes a community-led, government-funded response that is intentionally less violent and instead is focused on building safety for all.
Acknowledging the promise of such a program, the Board of Supervisors placed $3 million in reserve in June 2021. The Mayor, who has chartered spending authority, decided not to implement the program that year. Instead, she started up three other street teams; Street Crisis Response Team, Street Wellness Response Team and Street Overdose Response Team.
In June 2022, the CART campaign, having grown to include neighborhood and merchant groups, pushed again for funding for CART. The Board of Supervisors funded a pilot program at $3 million for one year. As a critical piece, the campaign successfully called for the funding to be put under the Department of Public Health, and to have it bid out to the community. The vision was to move from a failed complaint-centered response to a homeless-centered response and having a health department philosophy, with connection to needed services ensuring higher success.
Several times, the CART campaign met with Emergency Management and made two basic asks—that the agency have an independent and non-conflicted representative review the requests for proposals that outline the scoring and program components, and that it also have the same on the panel that reviews and scores proposals. Both of these requests were denied. In fact, department director Mary Ellen Carrol made it clear that this was not going to be “CART.” The department renamed the program the Community Response Team (CRT), removing both “Compassionate” and “Alternative” from the name.
In the end, two proposals came forward: one from Urban Alchemy and a second from a collaboration made up of Dolores Street Community Services, Code Tenderloin, and San Francisco Community Health Center.
In the collaborative proposal, the idea was to have five teams made up of peers, who would be extensively trained and receive clinical supervision from San Francisco Community Health Center. Three of the teams would be geographically specific with cultural competency and existing relationships with those communities. Each group would bring their particular expertise and strengths to form a mutli-racial, multiethnic partnership. Dolores, rooted in Latinx communities, provides shelter, housing, jobs programs and immigrant legal assistance, while Code Tenderloin, rooted in Black communities, provides jobs, outreach and case management services. San Francisco Community Health Center, formerly known as Asian Pacific Islander Wellness, provides health care, outreach, support and behavioral health services. The Health Center has a proven peer training program established internally. The trio reached out to the CART campaign to get input and support on program design. These groups have each established trust in unhoused communities—a crucial prerequisite for the program to be successful
By contrast, Urban Alchemy (UA) is primarily a jobs program which provides unlicensed security for private businesses such as Supreme and UC College of the Law, as well as for the City of San Francisco. Urban Alchemy focuses on providing jobs to people coming out of the prison system and has been very successful doing just that. It has expanded rapidly, adding 1,000 employees and garnering huge contracts. The organization appeals especially to politicians by appearing gracious by employing marginalized people, while building a private army to rid public spaces of anyone who is politically considered undesirable. According to their website, “One of Urban Alchemy’s many functions is to provide complementary strategies to conventional policing and security.”
While CART attempts to build alternatives to police, Urban Alchemy is very clear that they provide alternative policing. Urban Alchemy also runs the safe parking program in the Bayview, cabins at 33 Gough St., as well as the now closed Civic Center tent village, although it is upfront about not providing services at those sites; if services are to be provided, the City must bring in services from outside. The exception is the 711 Post St. shelter, where Urban Alchemy does run case management. Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a white staff person, who apparently brought a gun to work with him, walked out on break and shot someone in a car, who survived. UA management stated having no knowledge of the incident at the time, and the now former staffer was fired for not showing up at work the next day.
In the Tenderloin you can spot UA workers on every corner sporting their non-waterproof camo apparel (during rainfall, staff are given garbage bags to keep dry). Many workers do very important work such as administering Narcan to reverse fatal overdoses and clean the streets. But the most common operation UA performs is the unlicensed security in the neighborhood; the organization is structured to require them to do move-alongs to other impoverished people who likely have faced similar challenges. The City pays over $25 million for this service, which does not lead anyone off the streets, but forcibly moves unhoused and housed neighbors from sidewalk to sidewalk.
One recent rainy morning a Coalition on Homelessness staff person witnessed UA staff ordering a 73-year-old Black woman standing in front of a closed garage entry to move. She explained that she has multiple sclerosis and is carrying her groceries and needs to stop and rest every block. While perfectly polite, the UA employee made it clear she needed to move immediately. The woman explained this was the fourth time this had happened to her, and she was quite upset about being prevented from stopping and resting on her way home to her apartment from the grocery store carrying heavy bags.
While this is run of the mill Urban Alchemy daily activity, some workers engage in more disturbing harassment. Two weeks earlier this same COH staff person came upon a woman who had just been punched in the face by an Urban Alchemy employee. She said she was laughed at by the others who watched, simply for complaining about having to move off the public stairs on which she was resting. The victim tried to get a policeman to arrest the person, but the officer said he could only give a ticket and it would be pointless because “everything has been decriminalized.” (Note: Battery has not been decriminalized, and is still punishable by six months in jail). Often, Urban Alchemy will investigate and fire staff when really bad things like this happen; however, it doesn’t trigger a reckoning of their internal structural practices that need to change to prevent bad behavior.
On July 30, 2022, the City awarded CRT funding to Urban Alchemy. Even though it was widely known that the folks involved with CART fought for years for the funding, Urban Alchemy did not collaborate in writing the CART proposal or even bother to reach out at all. Typically, community organizations in San Francisco collaborate with each other on major systemic change work, and would have the basic courtesy to step back if other smaller BIPOC organizations have been struggling to create a funding source for a new project. Urban Alchemy just moved full steam ahead to go after even more funding. They now are a massive organization with over $62 million in contracts with the city of San Francisco alone.
UA is structured to manage public space, not to address homelessness. This means that what was originally CART funding, meant to achieve systemic change, will be used instead to use the tried and failed strategies. Though it won’t be armed police officers enforcing public spaces, there will be the same ineffective process of just moving people along to nowhere. The award has been appealed, but as of press time there is no response. However, the appeal process itself was biased, with the City refusing to provide the appellants UA’s proposal, a crucial piece of information.
The struggle to transform our existing police response will continue. Many have suggested working with UA to improve their response—much like police reform efforts have attempted to do. However, for this particular effort to be successful, UA would need to shift from defensiveness and denial to a transformation of their policies, procedures, practice, mission, training and entire orientation—something they have not indicated any interest in doing.
This article originally appeared in Street Sheet—San Francisco’s street newspaper.