When most people are on their way to sleep, San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team, or SF HOT, is just beginning its graveyard shift.
The 24-hour patrol team responds to the immediate needs of the roughly 7,000 homeless people living on the city’s streets. Some need blankets or medical attention. There are also issues like noise violations, public urination, or blocking the sidewalk.
Other cities may call in police squads or ambulances to address these situations, but those responses can be costly, or seen as too punitive. The SF HOT Team provides a lighter touch. And they don’t disappear when the crisis is over. They are doing the slow and sustained work of building bridges out of homelessness.
A night with the SF HOT Team
There are usually only a few points of contact between the world of San Francisco’s homeless and the rest of the city. Passersby do or do not give change. Some residents do or do not face losing their own homes. Then there’s the SF HOT Team. They work on the street with people who are homeless every day, like rope ladders the city throws out at night, trying to make a path back.
We’re under a tangle of freeway overpasses, where U.S. Highway 101 divides SoMa and becomes Interstate 80. I realize I’m here every day. We’re underneath my route home.
Tonight the SF HOT Team is making the rounds, checking in and offering services to each person they meet. Like Jennifer Hans Williams.
“They offered a shelter bed for a woman," Williams says. "But I can’t be in a shelter because of my borderline personality disorder. I can’t be around people, it makes me feel panicked.”
Williams and her husband look exhausted. Their big coats are worn out. Williams says that beyond the panic, the other reason she doesn’t want to head to a shelter is because she’d be separated from her partner.
“My husband and I, we’re both HIV-positive so we can’t be separated. We have to take our meds every day.”
The SF HOT Team offers them plastic-wrapped knit gloves and socks and then we head off along the row of tents and makeshift shelters lining the chain-link fence.
We keep moving. People pop their heads out and chat with Kathleen Lee and her teammate Scott Prentice. But because of strict confidentiality policies, I’m not allowed to record the exchanges. So I watch out of earshot, and then ask for a recap.
The SF HOT Team offers a range of services: everything from ponchos, to drug rehabilitation, withdrawal help, or shelter beds. What’s surprising is how most people say no to all of the above.
“If they don’t want anything I always tell them to call us,” says Prentice, “I tell them we’ll come back and check on them, we’re back here all the time.”
The rain starts to ease up. Lee tells me the SF HOT Team sees getting their clients into shelter as a first step.
“It feels like an avenue to more services,” Lee says. “Like a more tangible connection to other services possible.”
But there are a lot of reasons people would rather stay on the street.
“I don’t like shelters. I was raped in a shelter in Portland, Oregon,” says Christopher Posin, 23. “So I try not to go to them.”
He’s sitting on the sidewalk against a building with an older African-American man with a weathered face and missing teeth. Posin is baby-faced, but unsmiling. He says surviving on the streets is not just about self defense, it’s also about having people to depend on.
“My best friend, he’s got a heart of gold,” says Posin. “Every single time I’ve had my backpack stolen he’s the one who found it or got me a new one.”
Posin thinks his route off the streets will be finding a job.
But he says he’s been turned away for not having a home address. He manages to find gigs like landscaping, restoring windows and fitting glass.
When asked what he’d do if he knew he’d be homeless for the rest of his life, he says, “I might kill myself. If I knew that I’d never ever get off the street? Yeah, I’d probably kill myself.”
All night long the SF HOT Team is getting calls from the police department, the fire department and 311.
Like one call to pick up a kid in the Castro tripping on hallucinogens.
But the night I rode along with the SF HOT Team was not filled with crisis. I was struck by the stasis. The constant, routinized suffering.
“It’s a really strange place to be,” says SF HOT Team outreach worker Kathleen Lee. "It’s its own slight mental illness, because it’s kind of electric and tingly. You’re on high alert. It’s like your most fearful time and that’s where you stay.”
That empathy comes from personal experience.
Lee has her own story. For years she lived in a house in Sacramento with her partner. They had their own business painting and renovating houses.
“We also had a heroin habit that was decades old,” Lee says. “It was our own little secret.”
In the economic downturn, their business went under. She and her partner hung on for about nine months before ending up in their car.
“We were recycling, trying to maintain our habits,” she recalls. “And then, of course, when you stick your head in enough trash cans, you’re going to get sick. So we got really sick and then the car blew up at the same time, so we were on the side of the road.”
The SF HOT Team found them right as they hit rock bottom. They gave her and her partner antibiotics and vouchers for heroin detox. They’ve both been clean for more than five years. Today, they live in the city’s depleting stock of Single Room Occupancy buildings.
The SF HOT Team won’t be able to help most of the people it meets every night. But, Prentice says, “You never know who’s going to want it until you engage and ask every single person.”
“Then someone that doesn’t want it for years finally just gets sick and tired,” Lee says. “Everyone, eventually, may hit a breaking point and say, 'Today, I’ve got to get off the street.'”
The SF HOT Team exists so that, when that happens, people don’t have to try to do it alone.
This story originally aired on January 28th, 2015.