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Should police address homelessness? One city is betting on a new model | Homelessness

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It’s been some time now since Shanna Couper Orona has slept on the sidewalk, but she can’t forget the first time a police officer kicked the side of her tent in an encampment sweep in San Francisco.

The disorienting confusion of getting jarred awake at 3 in the chilly morning. The rush of fear that comes for any woman who hears unknown male voices at night. The ache in her back. “I poked my head out, and they said, ‘You have to get the fuck out’,” Orona said. “I said back to them, ‘I have to get the fuck out?’ And they said, ‘Oh, you got a smart mouth’?”

It’s hard to forget an encounter like that. It became even harder to forget when it happened time and time again to Orona in her four years on the streets – as well as to countless other homeless individuals, in San Francisco and beyond.

Now, with a renewed push to question the role of law enforcement in public safety after last summer’s protests, housing advocates and unhoused individuals in the US are asking why, far too often, armed police officers are still the first response to the complex crisis of homelessness – a response that often ends in violence and death.

And some are proposing solutions. In San Francisco, this questioning of the status quo has given rise to a new initiative to take police out of the homelessness response altogether. In Oregon, activists have introduced legislation that would prohibit law enforcement from enforcing a bevy of anti-homeless laws. But will cities follow through?


Anti-homeless laws exist in some form or another in jurisdictions all over the US, everything from trespassing and loitering, to the more severe ordinances of bans on tents, camping or sitting and lying down in public spaces. These laws have done nothing to solve homelessness, just criminalize it, advocates said.

A Guardian analysis in 2015 found that homeless people were 6.5 times more likely to be killed by police than the rest of the population. And police largely don’t have an answer when encampment residents ask them where they should go, as most local jurisdictions lack the supportive and affordable housing necessary to house the more than 567,000 living unsheltered in the US.

San Francisco sheriff’s deputies outside City Hall as protesters rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, 31 May 2020.
San Francisco sheriff’s deputies outside City Hall as protesters rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, 31 May 2020. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

“Cops across the country have homeless units,” said Paul Boden, the executive director of the not-for-profit Western Regional Advocacy Project. “Why? Not to protect homeless people. You’re not trying to mitigate homelessness. You’re trying to mitigate the presence of homelessness.”

In 2019, the San Francisco police department responded to more than 65,000 calls about homelessness. Last year, the city’s police commission urged local stakeholders to come up with an alternative way to respond to homelessness.

Community leaders developed a proposal that would reroute all calls regarding homeless issues to the Compassionate Alternate Response Team (Cart), highly trained civilians tasked with de-escalation and conflict resolution through each situation.

“The goal, of course, is to address the root causes,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

The team would aim to resolve the problem not just for the person calling it in, but for the unhoused individuals involved as well. If a woman calls about a drunk man leaning against her door, the team would speak to the man about going into a detox center, Friedenbach said. A police response would have most likely resulted in a drunk and disorderly citation and a night in jail. If neighbors were complaining about garbage from an encampment, the team could work with the city and encampment residents to schedule a cleanup while ensuring the encampment residents don’t lose their belongings, which happens often.

“This team is not going to solve the homeless crisis, but it is going to stop us from wasting money on the police response while also solve the calls coming in to 911,” Friedenbach said. “In terms of the deaths from police use-of-force and the trauma, we’ll be able to stop that with this team.”

Proponents of Cart estimate that the team would cost San Francisco $6.8m a year. The Board of Supervisors has already approved $2m. The other $4.8m would come from the police department’s budget.

The proposal came after London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, redirected $120m from the budgets of the police and sheriff departments to the city’s underserved Black communities. In June, following nationwide demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, Breed directed the police department to stop responding to non-criminal activities like homeless calls and said the city would develop a crisis-response program over the next year similar to one deployed in Eugene, Oregon.

But Breed has stopped short of throwing her support behind Cart. In November, she launched the Street Crisis Response Team, which responds to behavioral health calls within three specific neighborhoods.

“The early data has shown us that with over 100 cases that they’ve responded to, they’ve been able to help at least 34 of those individuals transition into something where they could get help,” Breed said in an interview with the Guardian.

Some individuals had to go into psychiatric detentions, Breed said. “But at the end of the day, they’re taking a very targeted approach involving people who know how to work with people who are struggling mentally,” she said. “I’m very proud of that. I think it’s made a noticeable difference to the conditions on our streets.”

Cart proponents say the Street Crisis Response Team doesn’t go far enough – it only covers behavioral health calls, a mere sliver of the calls that affect the total homeless population. The city also has a homeless outreach team, but this team is not dedicated to resolving issues between housed and unhoused residents.

Breed also maintained that while law enforcement should not be responding to all homeless calls, sometimes they are necessary for the safety of the workers.

“When it comes to someone who’s just homeless and sleeping in a tent somewhere, our goal is not to have the police respond to a situation like that,” she said. “But sometimes things can get a little bit challenging, where someone who is responding who is not a police officer, they may not feel safe. We’ve encountered situations of violence, attacks and other things. For us, I need to protect my workforce as well.”

Friedenbach called that assessment classist. “Housing status has nothing do with proclivity to violence,” she said. She pointed out that the city’s non-police Street Crisis Response Team is already responding to any unpredictability that may arise from mental health or drug addiction crises, suggesting that they could be handled without an armed police officer.

And when it comes to danger in the streets, most homeless people will say it comes from the police. Two weeks ago, Brian Martin, 42, woke up at 5 in the morning to a knife cutting through the tarp of his structure in San Francisco. “There was a police officer standing there, and they told me to step away from my door,” he said. “They handcuffed me and told us that we were going to be leaving.”

The San Francisco police department responded to more than 65,000 calls about homelessness in 2019.
The San Francisco police department responded to more than 65,000 calls about homelessness in 2019. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Under San Francisco’s tent ban, encampment residents must be given 24 hours’ notice before a sweep. Martin said he never received one, and was unprepared when the police arrived. He lost construction gear he used to make money on odd jobs, bicycles that he rebuilt to sell, clothes, electronics he collected off the street for his future home.

Worst of all, however, was the orthopedic brace and cane that Martin needs to walk after enduring six back surgeries. When he told the police he needed his brace, “They told me to shut my mouth,” he said.

“They wouldn’t let me have anything,” he said. “Every time I would ask them, ‘Can I grab that? That’s mine’. They said, ‘What job do you have to be able to afford something like that’?”

No one offered Martin housing after they swept his encampment two weeks ago. But Shanna Couper Orona, now a housing advocate, was able to help get him a temporary shelter bed.

Even though Orona no longer sleeps on the streets – she has an RV that she lives out of with her cat, Maison – she’s still a known entity in the unhoused world of San Francisco. A firefighter before she became homeless, she provides medical care for the unhoused and counsels individuals however she can.

“Most people are fearful of the cops because they have had interactions with the cops before,” she said. “And the way cops are doing things is only harming more people. People are done being bullied and done feeling like they’re nothing.”

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‘The Taliban killed a midwife who refused to leave a woman in labour’ | Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan’s first midwife-led birth centre opened in the impoverished district of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul this year it was a symbol of hope and defiance.

It began receiving expectant mothers in June, just over a year after a devastating attack by gunmen on the maternity wing at the local hospital left 24 people dead, including 16 mothers, a midwife and two young children.

For Zahra Mirzaei, its launch – along with a second birth centre in the east of the capital – marked the culmination of a decade advocating for women’s birth rights.

As president of the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA), Mirzaei was instrumental in establishing the midwife-led units promoting an ethos of respectful, bespoke care away from an over-medicalised setting.

“In our country this approach to pregnant women is groundbreaking and there was a great feeling of hope when we opened our doors,” she says.

“Women who had previously experienced undignified, low quality care in poorly staffed hospitals were pleasantly surprised to discover there is another way of doing things.”

The units in Dasht-e-Barchi and Arzan Qimat were established with technical support and training from the Europe-based Midwifery Unit Network (MUNet) and funding from two NGOs which we cannot name for security reasons.

A woman is supported in active labour by three midwives.
A woman is supported in active labour at a birth centre in Arzan Qimat. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

In the initial weeks the centres, staffed with a total of 75 midwives, were each welcoming 10 to 13 newborns a day. But as word spread, increasing numbers arrived and this soon climbed to 25 to 30.

By late July, Mirzaei was preoccupied with how to manage the rise in cases. But her work was overshadowed by a growing awareness of the Taliban’s military offensive, which had gathered unexpected pace.

News of the Afghan government’s imminent collapse amid the withdrawal of US troops was, to Mirzaei, personally and professionally shattering.

“Suddenly everything I had worked tirelessly for was under threat,” she says. As a Hazara Shia and a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights, the 33-year-old knew she and her three children were at risk.

“Previous Taliban governments have killed thousands of Hazara people without any reason. Also I knew my feminist work and belief in women’s equality would never be accepted by the Taliban regime,” says Mirzaei, who in 2020 was named one of 100 outstanding female nurses, midwives and leaders providing health services in difficult times by Women in Global Health.

As the US and its coalition partners scrambled to airlift thousands of people from the country, warnings were filtering through from Mirzaei’s home town that she was a potential Taliban target.

On the day Kabul fell, plunging the country into turmoil, she left her office for the last time, fleeing in such a hurry she was unable to collect her shoes. “We didn’t expect the situation to escalate so fast,” she says.

Later that night she was woken by the sound of her eight-year-old daughter sobbing: “I went to her and she said: ‘Mummy, I’m scared that when I’m 12 the Taliban will come and take me to get married and I won’t be able to go to school.’ That was so painful to hear that I promised there and then to get us out.”

After calling every contact she could think of, she heard from a friend in the US who could help. Mirzaei left home with her family at 1am on 23 August, still wearing the flimsy slippers in which she’d fled her office.

They spent a harrowing 12 hours waiting in a sewer near the airport before being rescued by US troops and airlifted to Qatar. From there they were transferred to a refugee camp in southern Spain.

Mirzaei in a refugee camp in Spain
Mirzaei, who is now in a refugee camp in Spain, says she was was heartbroken to give up the role of president of the Afghan Midwives Association. Photograph: Katie Cox/The Guardian

Speaking from the Spanish naval base in Rota, Mirzaei explains how leaving Afghanistan also meant, regrettably, stepping down as president of the AMA.

While she was heartbroken to give up the role, she remains a member of the advisory board and is working remotely to support the organisation including her successor – a woman from a different ethnic group who is more likely to be accepted by the regime.


As the eighth girl of 10 siblings, Mirzaei understood from a young age that boys and girls were not seen as equal. “I had two brothers but my father wanted more boys and it made me sad girls were not allowed to reach their full potential in our community.”

Growing up in the province of Sar-e Pol, where poverty was widespread and literacy rates were poor, 16-year-old Mirzaei found education opportunities were limited.

An encounter at the local hospital set her on the path to becoming a midwife. In the waiting room she witnessed a woman desperately searching for a midwife only to be abused by a health worker.

“This incident really affected me – the way they treated her was shameful. When I saw the doctor I asked her what a midwife was and why it was so important.

“I liked the sound of midwifery – it spoke to the feminist in me. That kind doctor changed my life by explaining how I could enrol on a community education midwife programme.”

A year later Mirzaei graduated with a diploma having already joined the AMA as a student. “I was inspired by its plans for improving the profession. For me the most important thing was for women to receive evidence-based, respectful maternity care.”

But starting out as a hospital midwife in 2006 she was concerned by what she saw.

A midwife supports a woman breastfeeding her newborn baby.
Early breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact and delayed cord clamping was encouraged at the units Mirzaei helped to create. Photograph: Nooria Omidy/Handout via Hannah Summers

“There would be 150 deliveries a day in a hospital with only four or five midwives. Women would be left to give birth in the corner or in the toilet. The most painful thing was seeing how exhausted the midwives were – they couldn’t support pregnant women emotionally and there was even physical abuse.”

While women in remote areas typically give birth without medical assistance, or sometimes with a midwife, childbirth in urban hospital settings is highly medicalised.

“These facilities are staffed by doctors who don’t seem to know their job description because they are overrun dealing with straightforward births,” says Mirzaei. “The care is dehumanised and the use of hormone drips and episiotomies is routine practice.”

Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, although the number of women dying in childbirth has slowed from 1,450 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 638 in 2017, according to UN data.

In 2012 Mirzaei became a provincial director for the AMA and later moved to Kabul to coordinate a midwives’ mentorship programme for the organisation.

She joined a small but growing cohort to achieve a BA in midwifery after graduating from Zawul Institute of Higher Education in 2016. Two years later she was elected president of the AMA and made it her mission to establish midwife-led units.

The model would move away from medical interventions towards a focus on active birth, skin-to-skin contact and early breastfeeding.

In 2003 there were just 467 midwives operating in Afghanistan – the severe shortage brought about by the Taliban’s ban on educating girls and women during the preceding years. This figure has since grown to 6,376 currently in clinical practice.

A 2018 Afghanistan Health Survey found just a fifth of pregnant women had received the recommended four antenatal care visits and fewer than 60% of births were overseen by a skilled healthcare professional.

There were 119 attacks by terrorist groups on healthcare facilities in Afghanistan in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Then in May 2020 came the massacre at the maternity ward of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital.

Among the dead was a midwife colleague of Mirzaei, Maryam Noorzad. “She was killed because she refused to leave a woman alone in labour. The baby was coming and after it was born a gunman entered and killed all three of them.”

Not only was the attack a horrific crime against pregnant women, babies and hospital staff – it was also a devastating assault on decades of work to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Afghanistan.

Despite the security fears, the AMA wanted to establish one of the midwife-led units in the same district to plug the gap left by the attack on the hospital, where there had been 16,000 babies born in 2019. Many of the midwives who survived the 2020 attack were among the highly trained staff taken on by the AMA to run the new centres.

A newborn baby on a maternity ward in Herat in February
A newborn on a maternity ward in Herat in February. It is feared decades of work to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Afghanistan could be threatened by the Taliban’s return to power. Photograph: Jalil Rezayee/EPA

The success of the centres relies on one-to-one care and requires numbers to be kept at a manageable level. To meet the demand it was Mirzaei’s ambition to open more units across Kabul and beyond.

But for now, at best, her dream is on hold. The centres closed after the Taliban takeover and while one has recently reopened many staff remain too fearful to go to work. Some midwives have already been interrogated by the Taliban for moving around without a chaperone.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that without immediate support there could be 51,000 additional maternal deaths between now and 2025.

In Spain, Mirzaei is preparing to fly to the US to start the next chapter of her life. Her immediate future is uncertain but she has accepted an offer to study global maternal health at City, University of London, which she’s had to defer until she can arrange a visa.

“Every day I open my phone and look at photos that were taken at our birth centres. It gives me hope. Their immediate success rests on the wider political situation but we will not cease our efforts to do everything we can for girls and women in Afghanistan.”

  • Many midwives who have campaigned for women’s rights in Afghanistan now find themselves targeted by the Taliban and have been forced into hiding, while others are at risk because of their ethnicity. The Association of Radical Midwives is raising funds to help those seeking to settle in the UK. To donate please visit this crowdfunding page.

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EU to open new mission in Kabul

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The EU foreign service is to open a mission in Kabul by the end of November, the FT reported Sunday, citing sources. The representation would not be an embassy, as the EU has not recognised the Taliban government. The EU office is also to be used by member states’ diplomats. “There’s only so much you can do from Doha,” a source said. China, Russia, and Turkey never closed their embassies.

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‘Countdown to catastrophe’: half of Afghans face hunger this winter – UN | Hunger

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More than half of Afghanistan’s population is facing acute hunger as the country has been thrown into one of the world’s largest food crises.

Almost 23 million Afghans will be hungry due to conflict, drought and an economic downturn that is severely affecting livelihoods and people’s access to food as a harsh winter looms, the UN has warned; an increase of nearly 35% compared with last year.

“Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises – if not the worst – and food security has all but collapsed. This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation,” the World Food Programme’s executive director David Beasley said, adding that “we are on a countdown to catastrophe”.

The Taliban takeover in August has contributed to the economic upheaval as billions of dollars in foreign aid payments – 40% of the country’s gross domestic product – have ceased and almost $10bn (£7.3bn) of Afghan central bank assets have been frozen.

Half of all Afghans will be facing crisis or emergency levels of acute food insecurity between this November and March next year, the UN report said.

As desperation grows, the number of beggars throughout Afghanistan’s major cities – including children – has risen as urban residents, for the first time, suffer similar rates of food insecurity to rural communities; a shifting pattern of hunger in the country.

Malnutrition ward at Kandahar’s Mirwais Hopsital.
Doctors on the malnutrition ward at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar said the hospital was struggling to cope with a rise in cases. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

In the southern city of Kandahar, a traditional Taliban heartland, the malnutrition ward at Mirwais hospital was packed with women and children, most of them sharing beds with several others. The ward was stuffy and crammed. Mothers sat with their children while fathers or other male relatives – usually not allowed to enter – waited outside. Although the hospital is the biggest health facility in southern Afghanistan, it is poorly equipped.

“We have more than 70 children here and numbers are increasing,” said paediatrician Zainullah Zermal, adding that although malnutrition cases usually rise with the approach of winter, this year’s cases were alarming and the hospital was struggling to cope.

Many families had travelled significant distances to reach Kandahar, unable to access adequate healthcare nearer home. More than 2,000 clinics across the country have closed due to lack of funds.

Eighteen-month-old Memala shared her bed with another patient at Mirwais hospital, her body thin and frail, her gaze absent.

“We have travelled from Kandahar’s Zhari district,” her mother, who didn’t want to give her name, said; about an hour’s drive away. Zermal explained that, so far, most children had a good chance of survival, but he was worried about the coming weeks.

“We’re now seeing more families arriving from far away. Some of them travel for days to seek medical care as there are no hospitals near them. Winter is coming and that’s when malnutrition usually spikes.”

In Kabul’s Indira Gandhi children’s hospital, the biggest paediatric clinic in the country, doctors said about a dozen children were arriving each day, even though the city’s markets were still stocked with food.

“We don’t have money to afford it,” said Fereshta, a 30-year-old mother. Her six-month-old daughter Zahaba was underweight. Fereshta, who has five children, said that between worrying about money and not having enough to eat, she hadn’t been able to breastfeed her daughter properly.

Beggars on the streets in the capital Kabul.
Beggars are visible on almost every street corner in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

Only 5% of households have enough to eat every day, the UN said. Many families who fled fighting before the Taliban takeover can’t afford to go back home, instead remaining in makeshift camps with no source of income. About 3.5 million people remain displaced within the country.

During the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, millions of Afghans lived in poverty and on the brink of starvation, and fears are mounting that a similar situation could arise.

The “Islamic Emirate” on Sunday launched a wheat-for-work scheme, saying it would employ 40,000 casual labourers in Kabul who would be paid in wheat instead of cash. During the initiative, set to last for two months, the Taliban pledged to distribute 11,600 tonnes of wheat in the capital.

Cash is largely unavailable, and many government employees are waiting for unpaid salaries.

In Kabul, beggars are visible on almost every street corner. In the city centre, small children chase after shoppers, hoping for a piece of bread.

Setara Amiri, 43, has been begging for the past month. Her husband, who worked as a driver for the previous government, is unemployed. “My children are begging too,” she said, sitting on a busy Kabul pavement. The family used to get by, she said, but not now.

“Each morning I wake up, I worry that we won’t have food at night. I’m begging so my children won’t starve.”

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