As City Officials Discuss Long-Term Response, Community Demands Humane Action For Homeless NowPhoto: sergejf/flickr
Brittany Hopkins
Published on February 26, 2016

As the clock ticks for residents still residing in tents on and around Division Street, a Board of Supervisors committee spent more than three hours yesterday listening to department heads, service organizations and community members, both housed and unhoused, regarding the city's successes, failures and plan moving forward to house all residents in the long-term and meet the needs of homeless residents in the meantime.

The meeting was called for by supervisors Malia Cohen (D10), Jane Kim (D6) and David Campos (D9), with the goal of hearing from every department touching the issue — the Mayor's Office of Housing, Opportunity, Partnership & Engagement (HOPE), the Department of Public Health (DPH), Human Services Agency (HSA) — on milestones to date and progress toward consolidating all of their programs into one new department.

Kim — who led most of the proceedings, as Campos had a family emergency and Cohen had to slip out for another committee meeting — expressed concern over whether the mayor's announcement of this new all-encompassing department on homelessness was "just to appease people." To understand whether this consolidation is actually happening and when, she challenged each presenter to state whether they agree with creating one department, whether it's logistically possible, and what the timeline for completing the merger looks like.

Overall, all of the department heads believed a consolidation is beneficial, logistically possible and confirmed that wheels are in motion, but each had their reservations.

Integration Is Necessary, Won't Be Easy

Public comment during yesterday's hearing on the status of the city's response to homelessness. (Photo: Brittany Hopkins/Hoodline)

Sam Dodge, appointed executive director of HOPE four months ago after more than a year on staff, said he expected merging the employees of three departments, selecting a department director and laying out a new reporting structure could be complete in the next few months. Logistics like securing one office for the new department and implementing one database for case management files would be completed on a rolling basis, though.

Speaking more candidly in light of her upcoming retirement, Joyce Crum — director of Housing and Homeless Programs for the Human Services Agency — said the process of integrating the departments has been "very slow" yet consistent. Most importantly, changes to the job functions of the 50 employees in her department have not been determined and is a "source of concern" for the entire staff. 

"Will there be support of that movement? Support for staff?" Crum asked. "If staff didn’t appreciate and have the heart and empathy, they would not be here. They’d be sitting in your other departments. We need to be very careful on how we move in that direction."

While Crum said she is supportive of putting all homeless services under one roof, she is concerned that offering just one-stop for all homeless residents will negatively impact racial minorities. “My problem with one door: racial equality might not happen. It’s been something I’ve addressed for the last 12 years. I see it every day. The face of homelessness is rapidly changing," she said. The average person living in a tent on Division Street is a 45-year-old white male, she noted. However, "the chronic homeless look like me [African-American]. It needs to be addressed, in a way that crosses all spectrums."

Her recommendation for ensuring racial equality in the new, consolidated system is paying close attention to hiring a workforce that mirrors the diversity of the city's homeless population. "I would share more of my life with someone who looks like me, then someone who looks like you. It's the way it is," she said. "If we’re not strategic in who we hire to work with homeless people ... I’m not talking about formerly homeless, people who can talk about their experience ... But if EDs [executive directors] and political appointees or elected officials do not reach just a little bit deeper, and expose themselves to who they work with, we’ll never have racial equality."

Echoing Crum's concerns regarding the logistics of supporting a whole new department, Trent Rhorer — executive director of the Human Services Agency — said the "agency is fully supportive of the merger if done the right way."

Rhorer, who's managed two department mergers in the past, said the right way will require a lot of behind-the-scenes work. That includes determining which services will move, what admin positions are needed to support those services, and transferring those positions to the new department without jeopardizing the administration for HSA.

Selecting the right person to serve as the director is also key, he added. Specifically, this person needs experience running the homeless department in a major metro area.

"We are on the right path," he said of all of the departments' efforts to date. "Strategies have worked in other cities that we know of and haven’t implemented. Partially because we are different departments."

Housing Is The Solution & The Problem

Photo: torbakhopper/flickr

Throughout the three and a half hour discussion, all of the officials agreed that providing housing is the solution to homelessness. And the city is in crisis due to cuts made to public housing funding over the past 30 years ago, not just recent developments. But the discussion also uncovered a few barriers tying the hands of service providers and keeping some shelter beds empty while people continue to sleep on the streets.

For example, when Supervisor Kim grilled Kelly Hiramoto from DPH's Homeless Outreach Team on why residents housed and homeless have not seen more results from the 12-year-old program despite its $8 million budget, Hiramoto explained that the department's directives are altered almost daily by incoming calls from residents, the Mayor's office, supervisors, DPH, DPW, SPFD, SFFD and others they're held accountable to. "... because we are one small team, we can’t be the everything," she said. "Having one homeless department prioritize will go a long way to make sure people stay on track and don’t get diluted down." 

More importantly, however, the department does not have enough transitional housing for all of the people it's expected to support. When the program launched in 2004 they had 330 "stabilization rooms" — typically rooms in SRO and tourist hotels purchased as needed to house homeless residents ready to work with staff to transition from the streets. Now, they have just 65. Meaning if they're helping a homeless resident get clean through methadone treatment, more often than not, they have to find the individual on the street and drive them to their appointments. If they can't find that person in their usual spot one day, they have to drive around and look for them. And if they can't find them in time for the appointment, they have to reschedule and try again.

Surprised to hear how far the program's housing stock has dropped, Peskin pressed Hiramoto on where all the rooms went. Many of the SRO hotels they used before, like the Baldwin, Winton and Civic Center Hotel have been master leased by the city to for permanent supportive housing. Some were in such disrepair that they're no longer allowed to house people there. Some were tourist hotels and the landlords decided they no longer wanted to work with this difficult population. And others were lost to students of the Academy of Art University — an issue Supervisor Peskin has already vowed to cracked down on.

Another matter the supervisors honed in on is access to emergency shelter beds.

When pressed by Kim on whether a new Navigation Center could be launched in the next few months — even potentially at Pier 80 — Dodge made no promises. He also said Pier 80 isn't one of his first choice for new locations.

"There are some things about Pier 80 that rightfully are intimidating. We can work on that, but a 15-foot fence and eighth of a mile walk to a three-mile-long shed, it’s hard to soften that," he said. "We're trying to do what we can to make it humane and reflect what we want to do, but it’s not our best option.”

While he confirmed that the department is aware and working to secure better options for Navigation Centers, he couldn't disclose specifics on potential locations, stating that they're still working with the owners of those properties.

The supervisors were also alarmed to hear accounts of numerous existing shelter beds going unfilled at night, and grilled stakeholders on the matter.

In response to one homeless man stating that he was turned away from Pier 80 because he did not have a reservation, Crum explained that there is no reservation system for Pier 80. Beds at Pier 80 are being held for the HOT Team's street outreach at Pier 80. They do not know how many people the HOT Team will be able to bring in each night and need to have beds ready for however many they can persuade on any given day, so they cannot offer beds to walk-ups at Pier 80. Once they've accommodated all of the people brought in from street outreach, they transfer people waiting outside or in the drop-in center at Amnesty MSC South at Fifth and Bryant to fill extra beds.

Helen LaMar, executive director of Providence Foundation in Bayview Hunters Point, said during public comment that they regularly have empty beds in their emergency family shelter where people call in daily for beds, but most nights the city's reservation system says it's full. "We don’t know where the breakdown is," she said, although she noted it is a computer program. "The system says we are at capacity, and we don’t know why. We've been trying to straighten this system out for years."

Humane Solutions Now

Photo: Evan Blaser/flickr

While members of the public agreed that housing is the key to long-term success, over and over, members of the public expressed dissatisfaction with the city's handling of homelessness in the here and now.

Homeless and formerly homeless residents as well as advocates shared problems they faced accessing services, questioned where they're supposed to go if they leave Division Street, and called on the board of supervisors to decriminalize poverty. On the other hand, many residents and business owners from SoMa, Mid-Market, Bernal Heights and the Mission also demanded action against criminals being allowed to openly do and sell drugs, and run prostitution rings and chop shops on the streets. And nonprofit service providers from the Haight, Bayview, Tenderloin and other heavily-impacted neighborhoods urged the Board of Supervisors to engage experts on the ground, rather than develop a way forward in back-room meetings.

The city's response to Division Street was also a regular topic among public commenters. One Division Street camper pointed out that all of the abatement order notices were printed in English, and he was concerned that the non-English speaking family camping next to him may not know about the 72-hour deadline to move. Others urged the Board of Supervisors to enact a moratorium on street sweeping, allow tents to remain and provide basic necessities like mobile toilets, showers and daily trash service, and allow residents to stay. Others echoed the St. Francis Homeless Challenge's call for providing an alternative secure location, off city sidewalks, for sanctioned camping.

While the Board of Supervisors tabled the discussion, former mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss made it clear in her comments that the Saint Francis Homeless Challenge was no longer waiting for the city's help addressing the needs of campers still living on Division Street.

At 9pm last night, the organization placed one mobile toilet at 11th and Division. Teams of volunteers are staffing the toilet until it's removed at noon today. Farah Weiss also confirmed last night that they're providing free oatmeal breakfasts with a selection of brown sugar, raisins, cranberries, peanut butter chips and chocolate chips to choose from to 800-1,000 homeless residents until 10am today on the Division side of SoMa StrEat Food Park. Bowls and spoons will be provided, but any additional donated supplies are encouraged.

We're continuing to monitor the situation on Division Street and the city's response to homelessness citywide, and will keep the information coming.