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San Francisco's homeless outreach team works to avoid unnecessary police responses

San Francisco street crisis program avoids needless police responses
San Francisco street crisis program avoids needless police responses 03:44

SAN FRANCISCO -- Kenneth Franklin has been given a second chance at life and he's using it to give others a second chance too.

"Repaying my debt back to society so I never look at it as me giving someone something -- it's more like me giving them what I owe them," Franklin told KPIX.

His "debt" comes from serving time behind bars. After facing nearly 60 years for gang-related activity, he was released after 16 years. Today he's using that experience to offer a helping hand to people experiencing homelessness.

"I was a destroyer. I was destroying our community and now I have opportunity to build up our community," Franklin explained.

He's doing that by serving on the city of San Francisco's Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team aka HEART. The team offers an alternative to police response and the program has proved its worth in its first year by responding to thousands of non-emergency calls which can take the police days -- sometimes weeks -- to get to.

"It helps the police department to focus on things more intense throughout the city," Franklin says. "We get more of those [non-emergency calls] because, normally, nine times out of ten it's someone that's homeless and we have that factor where we are more relatable. It's more of a calmer situation when we do approach."

He responds to a trespassing call in SoMa made by a nearby resident who called the non-emergency police line expecting cops. Instead of an armed officer, Franklin responded with his partner Rachel, armed only with Narcan, snacks and compassion.

Director of Emergency Management Mary Ellen Carroll says it's one of the most successful and cost-effective teams in the city and has responded to over 14,000 calls in the past year. The program was approved in 2021 and given a $3 million budget allocation.

"They have filled a gap we didn't have before," Carroll says. "The biggest takeaway is that the program actually worked as envisioned. It's a pilot program so you never truly know how it's gonna go. And the way we set it up is going to work but it has accomplished in many ways what it's set out to do, which is to, you know, to respond to these kinds of calls."

Carroll has heard criticism over city spending on the handful of pricey response programs that, according to a 2023 city audit, do not always fulfill their promised metrics. But each team, she says, caters to a specific need for people who continue to face homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness.

"You know, there was some skepticism about whether this would work and whether these funds would be used effectively but I would say, for what it set out to do, it's really one of the most effective programs that we've started and hopefully we can continue," Carroll added.

In the first year of the HEART program, internal data shows the team responded to 80 percent of 9-1-1 and 3-1-1 calls related to unhoused people or blocked sidewalks and placed 144 people in shelter. It's a program that's not only effective for people in need of help but those doing the helping.

Practitioner Rachel Felix is a recovering user of methamphetamines. She has faced prison herself and is now encouraging others to make the choice to seek help rather than being forced into it.

"I've been the dealer, I've been the user and so now it's like I'm in a place to where I can not only relate but now be on the streets and offer services and just instill hope in them," she said. "And that there are people out here who care about their situation and what they're going through."

Felix says she uses her lived experience of being addicted and incarcerated to persuade those currently facing substance abuse there's a better way to live.

"In the past, I was flaky. I didn't show up. I didn't keep my word. You know, I was selfish. I was self-centered. I thought about me and my addiction and making money and that was it," she explained. "Now, today, I can show up for people and keep my word and not only just with people out here on the streets but with my family, you know, in life in general ... and it feels really good."

For Franklin, it's a cycle that is proving its effectiveness. 

"By understanding and fixing myself and understanding my value, I start understanding my worth. And because I understand my worth, now I can project that onto others," Franklin said. "That love that I have for myself I can show you that I love myself so I can show you that I love you and you should love you and this is why I do the work."

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