Mayor Ed Lee said Wednesday he would create a city department grouping all of San Francisco’s homeless services under one roof, a step that would be the most far-reaching effort in a decade to help people living on the streets.
By gathering all the health, housing, drug rehabilitation and counseling programs designed for the homeless under one agency, the mayor hopes to end the Balkanization of services that sometimes clogs attempts to move indigents inside. Such streamlined coordination has had dramatic success in cities such as Houston and Salt Lake City.
Lee said one of his inspirations for creating the department was the city’s Navigation Center, which has taken 250 people off the street since it opened in April. The center at 16th and Mission streets directs people who had been living in camps into housing and into a variety of services intended to keep them off the streets.
“I want our programs and services for the homeless to be in a less siloed place, with a defined outcome — housing every homeless person we can with the help that they need to live healthy lives,” Lee said. “I want the people who come to work in this new department to come to work every day with a singular thought: ‘How can I help someone get off the streets?’”
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$1 billion over 4 years
Lee plans to announce the new department in a speech Thursday that will lay out his goal of spending at least $1 billion over the next four years to help 8,000 people out of homelessness. The department does not yet have a name, and the mayor said Wednesday he did not have a director in mind.
The department would represent the most significant effort to end homelessness since then-Mayor Gavin Newsom created his 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2004. That project fell far short of eliminating homelessness, but it took thousands of people off the streets, led to creation of street counseling teams and programs including Project Homeless Connect, and greatly expanded the supply of supportive housing.
Even so, the number of homeless people has stubbornly remained at about 6,500 for several years. This year’s homeless count showed that the city had 6,686 people without a place to live, or 3.8 percent more than the 6,436 tallied in 2013.
As he spoke of his initiatives, Lee used the words “ending homelessness,” but he cautioned that he is not pledging to clear the streets.
“I’m not going to be so bold, like a politician might, as to say I am ending homelessness,” the mayor said. “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.”
The new department will inherit homelessness tasks now performed by other city agencies, primarily the Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency. It will oversee street outreach counseling teams, homeless housing services and mental health programs aimed at indigents.
Lee expects the department to have as many as 30 employees, many of them also pulled from existing agencies. The building where they will be housed has not been determined, he said, and a national search will be conducted to hire a manager for the department.
Because Lee is creating the department from his office, it does not need Board of Supervisors approval.
The mayor’s initiative includes no additional money beyond what the city now spends on homeless programs. The $1 billion figure over four years is about the same total spending the city puts directly and indirectly toward homelessness now.
Lee’s goal of taking 8,000 people off the streets is ambitious. The city has ended homelessness for about 22,000 people over the past 11 years, many of them either placed in housing or bused to families or friends out of town. And many of those were helped early on under Newsom’s program. In the past few years, fewer than 1,000 homeless people a year have left the streets.
The mayor said his goal is to streamline the bureaucracy so programs run more smoothly. He hopes to enlist private donors, nonprofit agencies and community leaders in the planning for the department.
Several city service managers and nonprofit leaders greeted the mayor’s initiative enthusiastically.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Human Services Agency Executive Director Trent Rhorer, who has advocated such a consolidation since he was Newsom’s homelessness director in the mid-2000s. “We’ve tried coordination of services through the notion of a homelessness czar, so to speak, which is a good approach — but in the end, the position doesn’t have any authority or direct control over staffing levels or funding priorities.
“That approach may have been fine when the systems we were dealing with were small,” Rhorer said. “But now they are massive. And when you’re trying to coordinate all our services with each other, it’s difficult despite the best of intentions.”
Public Health Director Barbara Garcia hailed the plan as a way to “provide us a real collaborative focus” that could result in more federal dollars being pulled in by better planning.
Sam Dodge, who is now the mayor’s point man on homelessness, said he will be involved in planning the department, but does not necessarily expect to head it.
“I’ll do whatever the mayor asks of me, and I am very excited about this new plan,” he said.
“It sounds like the mayor has gotten the message that this problem can’t be solved by just going around the edges,” Shaw said. “It’s long overdue. Of course, the proof is in the pudding.”