SF’s New Homeless Czar Grew From Grassroots

Central City Extra catches up with Sam Dodge, the mayor’s new homeless czar, during his first month on the job.

http://hoodline.com/2015/11/sf-s-new-homeless-czar-grew-from-grassroots

This article, written by Marjorie Beggs, was originally published in Central City Extra’s November 2015 issue (pdf). You can find the newspaper distributed around area cafes, nonprofits, City Hall offices, SROs and other residences – and in the periodicals section on the fifth floor of the Main Library.

Sam Dodge squeezed a lot into 
the half-hour before his weekly 
meeting at the Navigation Center 
with staff of city departments and nonprofit agencies. He checked in with the 
front desk supervisors and the living 
room/kitchen coordinator, checked out 
the condition of a few center “dormitories” 
where up to 75 people can be 
housed, and talked on his cell phone, 
putting out fires and sounding every 
inch the new director of the Mayor’s 
Office of Housing, Opportunity, Partnership 
& Engagement—HOPE

Dodge spent most of 2014 as deputy 
to HOPE Director Bevan Dufty, otherwise known as the city’s homeless 
czar. When Dufty announced his 
retirement on Oct. 12th, Dodge was appointed 
to take over the slot. 

The seven-month-old Navigation Center, 
Dodge’s brainchild, has become the centerpiece 
of HOPE. Located on Mission 
Street off 16th, it will take in entire encampments 
of homeless people (plus their pets), 
providing beds, food, clean bathrooms 
and no strict curfews. And they can stay 
until a case manager finds them more 
permanent housing, which now is taking 
an average of two months. 

Overall, clients are staying at the 
center an average of 51 days before they 
“exit” to permanent housing or shelters, are sent home to the care of family or friends, or have an “unstable 
exit”—mostly just walking away back to 
the streets. 

The center is Dodge’s baby, and he’s 
quick to acknowledge its kinks. 

“At today’s meeting—with representatives 
from DPH, HSA, DPW, SFPD, 
Budget Office, the Controller’s Office, 
Episcopal Community Services and 
HOPE—we spent some time going 
over the metrics the controller is thinking 
of using for rating the Navigation 
Center’s work,” he said. Among them are 
weekly stats on housing placements and 
exits, and numbers of those still at the 
center after a year. 

Those at the meeting talked about 
individuals who moved out the previous 
week and the next groups moving in—six people from two encampments, 
in the Cesar Chavez/101 area and 
14th and Mission. 

“And,” Dodge said, “we also dove into some issues Navigation Center staff 
have been grappling with—lack of documentation, 
IDs, working with injection 
drug users.” 

Those are problems and client populations 
that the congenial, conscientious 
Dodge, 40, has tended to for most 
of his career among the down and out. 

After two years as a union organizer 
for the California Nurses Association 
and the SEIU, he became a fixture in the 
Tenderloin, beginning in 2000 as a Tenderloin 
Housing Clinic tenant organizer. A year later, he founded THC’s Central City SRO Collaborative, supervising 12 staff and 30 peer organizers 
who advocated to force SRO 
landlords to keep their residential hotels 
safe and habitable. They trained tenants in organizing 
skills, including how to monitor 
for safety hazards, and convened annual 
tenant meetings.

An SRO on Sixth Street. (Photo: San Francisco Homeless Resource)

“Sam’s someone I really trust in his new position,” says Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of S.F., who was Dodge’s colleague during those years. “He comes from a perspective that’s very aware of the realities of people on the street. He’s also compassionate and a real roll-up-your-sleeves person. He has heart and understanding, plus he’s a pragmatic problem-solver.”

Dodge says his work in Tenderloin SROs primed him for the new job—“SROs are at the nexus between homelessness and housing,” he notes—but what he did afterward honed his skills. He left the city in 2007 and spent a year helping a buddy set up a bee operation on his Oregon farm. 

Next stop: New York City, the proverbial city that never sleeps. Indeed, Dodge didn’t sleep much 
for the five years he lived there. He took 
evening and weekend classes at Columbia 
University toward a master’s in public 
policy, and much of that time also 
worked full-time for the city Department 
of Homeless Services in its Manhattan 
Street Homeless Solutions unit, which 
shelters nearly 60,000 nightly. He got married, and his first child was born.

When he returned to San Francisco 
in 2014, Dodge worked as a DPW analyst, 
helping investigate issues at homeless 
encampments, coordinating with 
social services and collecting data. Soon, Dufty tapped him to be his deputy 
director. 

“My time in New York really set me 
up for this San Francisco job,” Dodge 
says. He notes that the similarity of the 
two coastal cities—super-high rents 
that push many into homelessness—is 
overshadowed by weather differences. 

“The seasons have a big bearing, the 
extreme cold and heat there,” he says. “A 
court settlement in 1979 gave people 
the ‘right to shelter,’ and New York now 
has 58,780 people in 255 shelters compared 
to 1,200 here.” 

Surprisingly, however, the two cities 
count roughly the same number of street homeless: 3,500. (San Francisco reported a
total 6,686 homeless in January, but of 
those, 3,100 were considered “sheltered,” 
living in public or private shelters, 
cars, or other places “not designed for or 
ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation 
for human beings.”) 

“To me, the comparable street homeless 
numbers say New York’s right to 
shelter works,” he says. “But New York 
also has a parallel system, transitional 
shelters they call ‘safe havens,’ that are 
comparable to our Navigation Center.“ 
New York’s 10 safe havens have more 
than 670 beds. 

As deputy director of HOPE, Dodge 
got the opportunity to use that East 
Coast model. An anonymous donor came 
to him, he says, and offered $3 million 
“with no strings” if the city would “do 
something about the street homeless.” 
The conceptual idea and framework for 
the Navigation Center were his, he says, 
and he scouted and found the location, 
helped supervise the construction with 
DPW and managed the budget. Of the 
$3 million, two-thirds went to center 
buildout and operations, one-third to 
permanent housing for those leaving 
the center. 

He found the site in December—a 
36,000-square-foot parcel with 12 aging 
but freshly painted portable buildings, 
five of them dorms, ringing a large 
courtyard filled with picnic tables under 
white tents. The center opened 
three months later. Marshall Elementary 
School and Phoenix Continuation High 
School, previously occupied the site, which had 
been vacant since 2002. Dodge credits 
Dufty with leading the way in getting 
Mission District residents and business 
owners to accept the center. “NIMBY is a 
big issue—it always is—but Bevan got 
them to not only accept, but welcome, the program.”

Photo: Navigation Center

More centers are needed. In September, 
the mayor allocated $3 million 
in city funds to expand the program, and approved plans to master lease 500 
SRO units to house people leaving the 
Navigation Center. Dodge heads up that 
Streets to Homes initiative, too. Among the SROs slated for that program are the Civic 
Center and Drake hotels, he says. 

Shortt is confident that Dodge, given 
his ability to work within the system, 
social justice background and “position 
against criminalizing homelessness,” will 
get high marks from public and private 
stakeholders. 

“Sam really cares about housing 
and homeless issues,” she says. “My only 
reservation is whether he’ll be able to 
tolerate the pressures that may come 
with the job and the administration he’s 
working under.” 

On his way into the weekly meeting 
in one of the portable buildings, Dodge 
stopped in the courtyard to pet a small 
dog who was unleashed but sticking close to his 
owner. Of the 236 people who’ve cycled 
through the Navigation Center since it 
opened, 16 percent have brought pets. That’s 
about 40 dogs, Dodge estimates. 

“I love dogs,” he says. “It’s so nice to 
have them in my days.” 

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