"In San Francisco you get in trouble if you make a crazy guy shit his pants in fear, but across the bay you can shoot a guy in a wheelchair."
Hanging at my favorite coffee shop to charge my phones and get out of the sun, I find myself sitting here while some "undercover" police officers* talk candidly. A senior officer (who brags often that he teaches at the academy) is talking to a person (from the Castro patrol) about how to become a supervisor and to:
1) let him know what to expect, how to get around the "rules just set up for liability",
2) how people work to get out of doing patrol duties,
3) how to get free public transit riding with a law enforcement card,
4) how "arresting black people is better than watching cable",
5) how they confiscate the bikes of people they don't life so they'll have to pay fines
6) how the police were on suicide watch with Mirkarimi before he made a plea deal, and
7) what I care the most about here- how they respond to "the crazies" (by which they mean homeless folk) that "sometimes just need to be shot, but be careful what community you do it in."
Their conversations about responding to individuals with severe mental health issues in the single room occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms is literally making me cringe.
First, for those unfamiliar with San Francisco politics, a SRO is a housing situation, typically leased by the city to prevent the resident from obtaining tenants rights. They are hotels with a twin bed and enough of a walkway to fulfill the fire code. They are technically a sheltered place to live, but they enable the city to still count the individuals in their homeless count (because federal homeless guidelines require a private bathroom and kitchen facilities in order to be officially called housing). SRO's at best have shared bathrooms and kitchens and typically do not have mailboxes for residents (which mean the residents cannot access state run domestic violence programs).
Imagine if you lived in such a tiny room. Now, imagine that you have paper thin walls and about 100 neighbors with severe addiction and mental health issues that you share your kitchen and bathroom with.
While it is true that all models say you must provide housing before you can address addiction, mental health issues and the trauma that causes and comes from living on the streets, there are some individuals whose mental health issues are exacerbated by life in SRO's.
When to medicate, jail or hospitalize people with mental health issues is also a sticky subject, that I'm not attempting to address in this blog post. I do however advocate that in the moments that people are intervening, whether it is family, faith leaders, social workers, medical professionals, police or judges, that people do so with care, compassion and the desire to enable individuals to self determine when it is safe and possible to do so.
So, when I hear police officers talking about how easy it is to get rid of the "most annoying" or to create fear in mentally fragile individuals to get respect, I'm very upset about it.
While they are talking about how little the amount of paperwork is, "just one simple little half-page," to 51-50 (police code for committing someone to the hospital for a 72 hour emergency psychology hold) a person and get rid of a "crazy nuisance", I think about the shrinking number of mental health beds in San Francisco and pray the nurses and doctors are better at triaging need than these police officers are.
While the number of mental health beds in hospitals is shrinking, it means we need to become better stewardship of these beds. These two police officers are not helping to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable get the support they need.
I pray these two officers are bad seeds. But, I fear that they are a symptom of San Francisco's broken mental health system.
Bravado or not, their loud public conversation is happening next to an homeless advocate. Moments like this are why I go on street retreat. I hear this conversation as a call to step up my work advocating for vulnerable individuals with chronic mental health issues this year.
While these two officers continue to speak inappropriately about politicians they work with and have projects with, I could certainly share more salacious bits of their conversation. But, I would rather focus on the call for all of us all to work on issues of mental health in San Francisco and across the country.
I pray for all individuals who struggle to stay their highest functioning self, for the families and friends that support individuals with mental health issues and for all who advocate and protect the most vulnerable in our society.
And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.
*Note: While I'm on street retreat I am not trying get anyone in trouble or create the impression that my time is a sting operation to expose organizations or individuals. If organizations felt this way, I would no longer be allowed to eat with and listen to those in need.
I often avoid naming organizations that I am critiquing, because my goal is for the entire support network to improve our response to homelessness. In order to do this, I need to maintain good relationships with organizations and city agencies. In this case, I believe it is a crime to disclose the photos or identities of undercover officers because it can put them in danger.