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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mayor Lee Proposes New City Department Tasked With Ending Homelessness

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 1:06 PM

click to enlarge MICHAEL YAN/FLICKR
  • Michael Yan/Flickr

Mayor Ed Lee has a new plan to help get homeless San Franciscans off the street, and it’s the most ambitious in nearly a decade.

As SFGate reports, the mayor wants to create a Department on Homelessness (not its official name) that will serve as a one-stop shop for the city’s various health, housing, drug rehab, and counseling services. The mayor has reportedly earmarked $1 billion to fund the initiative over the next four years — which isn't new money, but what the city would spend on existing homeless services in that period anyway.

The mayor will also launch a national search for a director to head up the department and oversee the approximately 30 current city employees expected to staff it.

Not since 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom unveiled his 10-year plan to end homelessness, has City Hall proposed such a major renovation of its homeless strategies. As SFGate notes, since the mayor's office is spearheading the department, the Board of Supervisors doesn't need to approve it.   

“I’m not going to be so bold, like a politician might, as to say I am ending homelessness,” the mayor told SFGate, seeming to disavow that he is either bold or a politician. “But I will use that phrase to say that everybody who works on this problem has the goal to end homelessness for a single person, a veteran, a child, a family member. I want a department that is dedicated to that outcome every day.”

That’s nice rhetoric, of course, but homeless advocates have skewered Mayor Lee’s previous tone-deaf statements about how to manage the city’s un-housed — most notably, his cryptic remark this summer that the homeless would have to go somewhere else prior to the Super Bowl in February.

(The mayor has since been tight-lipped about a Super Bowl clean-up. Just last week, he issued a statement praising the Winter Shelter program that provides the homeless safe haven during the rainy El Nino season.)

His administration’s centerpiece innovation, the Navigation Center in the Mission, has earned big kudos, so much so that the Chronicle recently wondered whether the center was “a bit too successful for its own good.”

The center quickly hit its capacity of 75 people after opening in April. The trouble is, the homeless are staying a lot longer than the envisioned two to three weeks.

In fact, the average stay for the homeless at the center at 16th and Mission streets is turning out to be 85 days — with 37 of the current clients having been at the center for nine weeks or more. One person has been there 223 days.

This kind of sums up how thankless a task homeless policy is: it’s either not effective enough, or not effective at all.

Mayor Lee is looking to two other cities for inspiration: Houston and Salt Lake City. Both have been lauded for creatively housing their homeless populations. In June, Houston announced that it had effectively ended homelessness among veterans, with 35 agencies collaborating to house more than 3,650 veterans in just three years.

Marilyn Brown, CEO of Coalition for the Homeless in Houston, told SF Weekly, "We challenge other communities to consider this kind of collaboration, because no one group or organization can solve homelessness – it is a community issue. We have learned much from other cities and we are honored to share our own knowledge.”

And Salt Lake City has basically become the national standard for reducing homelessness. Social service agencies and nonprofits work together there, with one person in charge.

Bevan Dufty, San Francisco’s point man on homelessness, left his position abruptly in October. Sam Dodge, the city’s new “homeless czar,” supports creating a new streamlined homeless department, according to SFGate, although he doesn’t necessarily expect (or, one imagines, want) to run it.

According to Hoodline, Mayor Lee has also "called upon the SFPD to step up enforcement on drug dealers targeting areas near homeless shelters and community support services." He also implored private sector and philanthropic organizations to partner with the city to roll out more Navigation Centers (which Supervisor Mark Farrell wants to see become permanent fixtures throughout the city).

With nearly 7,000 homeless people tallied in San Francisco (a number that continues to creep ever upward), and well over $100 million thrown at homeless services every year, it seems a new approach might be in order.

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Jeremy Lybarger


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