Inside the Homeless Outreach Team

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Gary said he had been homeless for 17 years.
PHOTO BY MIKE KOOZMIN

This week’s Bay Guardian features a cover story on homelessness in San Francisco.

For that story, we reached out to the San Francisco Department of Public Health to interview members of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, public workers who interact directly with people who live on the city’s streets.

Access was denied. It’s not clear why DPH was unwilling to allow a press interview with members of the HOT team, but our requests did coincide with a March 19 Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing regarding a $1.3 million budget supplemental to expand its capacity.

The item was approved 4-1. Sup. John Avalos, who opposed it, said the city ought to come up with a more comprehensive plan to address homelessness.

As Sup. Jane Kim noted in an interview for the story, "If you're just going to increase the HOT team, but not services, then you're just sending people out to harass homeless people."

Meanwhile, thanks to emails we recently obtained in response to a public records request, we now have a clearer picture of the HOT team’s day-to-day activities.

Apparently, efforts to expand the HOT team are being made in the context of city officials being contacted frequently by neighbors who complain that they are very bothered by the sight of homeless people.

A records request yielded more than 100 pages of such complaints. Some are quite dramatic.

“I don’t know where to begin,” one resident wrote. “I feel between mad, disgusted, and frustrated. This homeless encampment keeps growing. … The city has put up wire fencing only to be cut through by the homeless. … It is within 100 yards of my 1.2M condo.”

Another said: “Something is deeply wrong with San Francisco policy. Cultivating the Bohemian San Francisco style is nice but … it is as if we were in a deteriorated undeveloped country. We live in downtown San Francisco, not in the favelas, which is what it feels like …”

Still another complainant wrote: “Bags distributors are installed in the parks in order to help dog lovers clean up after their dogs, which is completely normal, but nothing is done for all the human beings who stroll, do drugs, eat, sleep, urinate, defecate and so on, on the sidewalks.”

Sometimes these complaints result in HOT team visits to homeless encampments that have been described. But the emails suggest that while the city’s HOT team does approach homeless folks to try and persuade them to access services or go to a shelter, the service workers don’t always have full services to direct them to if the homeless individuals agree to do so.

Psychiatric social worker Jason Albertson, who is part of the HOT team, explained this dilemma in an email sent in mid-January. His email noted that the HOT team had encountered some homeless people in the vicinity of Harriet Alley and Manolo Draves Park, in response to a neighbor’s urging.

They’re “primarily in transit, meaning that they camp in different places each night and are not regulars,” he explained. “So far, nobody has wanted to enter into shelter or discuss other access to treatment or services.” But even if they had, he said, there wouldn't be too many options for moving forward with recovery.

“At this time, our case management support is limited with identified clients waiting,” he wrote. “So capacity for full service is limited.”

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