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Weak Foundation 

The post of homeless coordinator may be so much window dressing

Wednesday, Jul 24 1996
Four-and-a-half months into his new advisory position as Mayor Brown's homeless coordinator, Andy Olshin says he typically starts his workday at 7 o'clock in the morning and doesn't get home before 8:30 at night. That's six days a week.

"I need to have at least one day off," he adds, "or else I couldn't do anything."

Social service providers don't doubt Olshin's hours. They do, however, question his effectiveness. At 31 years of age, they say, he is drawing a nice fat annual paycheck of $75,000 that belies a distinct lack of power and experience.

Larry Cruz, one of four homeless coordinators during former Mayor Frank Jordan's administration, calls the position "window dressing." "There is no Department of Homelessness," he says. "He has no organic relationship with agencies that impact homeless people's lives. ... There is this resignation in City Hall that homelessness will always be with us, so we do things we know won't work -- but will be politically expedient."

Critics charge that Olshin, a lawyer whom Brown plucked from the City Attorney's Office, only received his post as a payoff for his participation in the mayor's 1995 campaign. "Andy was appointed by an imperial mayor who rewards loyalty," says a top mayoral administrator in a position to know and who, like many people interviewed, requested anonymity. "There is nothing in the system to prevent an 'Andy' from happening."

Olshin is currently under fire from the Coalition on Homelessness for his management of a Golden Gate Park cleanup program using welfare recipients. He cites it as his most "significant accomplishment" to date.

Started in May, the project employs 20 General Assistance beneficiaries at $6 an hour, 40 hours a week, to clean Golden Gate Park under a temporary job-training program. But under county guidelines for General Assistance, recipients are allowed to take home monthly pay of no more than $800 for three months before being cut off from the program. Activists contend that program participants were not informed that they could lose GA, and Olshin admits he was unaware of the restriction.

"But we laid it all out to them," he says. "They understood the program." Steve Williams, coordinator of the General Assistance Rights Union, says that was not the case.

"There was no information about when they'd get cut off after the program was extended -- until we raised the issue," Williams says. "People are going to be cut off GA because they participated in this program. If they don't find other employment, they'll have to wait two months before they can reapply and in the interim risk becoming homeless again."

Olshin's workfare project is not the only piece of his administration that has come under fire. His organization of the mayor's September Homeless Summit at Golden Gate University has drawn its own share of condemnation.

Olshin says he seeks nothing less than "an atmosphere where we can have an intelligent dialogue on the issues. There needs to be a commitment by the haves that the have-nots are people too." But although homeless service providers support that sentiment, they are scrutinizing the summit's planning process for the promise of concrete results from the mayor.

"Where does he stand with people on the streets versus merchants?" asks one member of the planning group. "How will local money replace lost federal dollars? Andy's role is largely a charade. Brown will preside, Sphinx-like, and then like an oracle announce a policy he's already formulated."

Service providers say summit planning meetings have been "total chaos."
"Andy's trying to run a meeting with people who know 10 times more than he does," says one source. "It's like kicking your little brother around. It took us 10 weeks just to hammer out the goals and purpose statement."

Olshin's position was established in 1986 by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Seven appointees have held the title.

"We have a high-paying position with no authority," says Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. "For years there have been no cost-of-living increases for nonprofits, yet we're spending money for a homeless coordinator."

At least one official close to the Mayor's Office insists the role has merit. "The coordinator ultimately is needed to promote cooperation among departments dealing with homelessness," this official says. "The power of the Mayor's Office is the best place for that to happen. But it takes a good coordinator to wield that influence."

Olshin certainly hasn't received a unanimous endorsement on that score. "This guy has no working knowledge of homeless issues," says Maceo May, housing coordinator at Swords to Plowshares, a homeless veterans agency. "He's out of his league."

"That's bullshit," Olshin shouts. "It's my energy, my experience that makes this work. The mayor said, 'I know Andy has no experience, but he has a full set of brains.' "

Olshin, a schoolteacher turned lawyer, served on the health and social services team in the City Attorney's Office during the early '90s. He reviewed contracts for the Department of Public Health and summaries of appeals by welfare recipients for the Department of Social Services. Olshin contends that this has given him vital expertise, but concedes that he is in the dark in key areas. Pressed for specifics on the city's homeless problem, for example, he admits that he is "a little shaky" on the number of shelter beds in the city and cannot cite how much city money is spent on homelessness.

According to a report by a task force of former Mayor Jordan's, the city spent $38.8 million on homeless programs. An additional $17 million came from state and federal sources. This same report counted 1,400 emergency shelter beds, with an additional 100 beds during winter.

When asked what state and federal funds he had targeted or obtained for San Francisco, Olshin says he is coordinating a September fund-raiser at a Noe Valley restaurant. He says he anticipates raising $10,000.

As for discretionary spending: "If you mean, 'Do I have a budget?' I do in that I have a staff," he says.

Although Olshin answers to the mayor, he says he does not meet with Brown regularly. And that, say Olshin's detractors, is just one more piece of evidence pointing toward Brown's indifference.

"This is a bad choice for a reason," says May. "The unwritten message is that the mayor doesn't see homelessness as a valuable issue. If there's a problem, he'll blame Andy and fire him."

Calvin Welch of the Council of Community Housing Organizations says the problems are bigger than Olshin. "Andy is a choice I have criticized," he says, "but if Mayor Brown appointed Sister Teresa for a position with no budget, no power to implement programs, no ability to affect departments that affect the homeless, and that can only reflect the bias of the mayor, it still wouldn't work.

About The Author

Malcolm Garcia


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