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21st-century homeless programs

by Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

On Monday, January 7, the Supe-watching residents of San Francisco were treated to a fifteen-minute “indulgence” by the board as Gavin Newsom outlined his much-heralded plan to solve the city’s persistent homeless problems. The good supervisor, who has spent hours in research and visiting shelters, SROs, and service centers, proposed an integrated approach, coordinated through a city Department of Homelessness. In acknowledgment of citizens’ complaints about aggressive or unpleasant behavior by street people, he tacked on a series of quality-of-life and panhandling penalties that have homeless advocates seeing red.

Newsom’s conflation of panhandlers and homeless people, while common, boggles the mind. Try this experiment: walk down Market Street or another area known for its “spare change” seekers and count the number of people who are stationed there. Now take out your pocket calculator and figure out what percentage they constitute of the 7,000+ homeless people who live in San Francisco.

When are we going to realize that the problem isn’t the panhandlers? It’s homelessness.

When will our politicians — whether Clint Reilly, Amos Brown, or Gavin Newsom — stop reinventing the wheel and get down to the real job at hand?

Last spring the newspapers made much of an angry confrontation between Our Mayor and Supervisor Chris Daly over the restructuring of the city’s shelter program. They paid no attention whatsoever to a draft document issued by the city’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board entitled “Continuum of Care: A Five-Year Strategic Plan for Homeless Services, 2001-2006.”

Last fall, as the economic effects of the dot.com bust and September 11 began to be felt, the Ex-paper’s Mess on Market campaign came to a boil and the newspapers made much of an angry statement by Our Mayor that “San Francisco’s dirty streets and highly visible homeless population were hurting tourism.” They ignored a nearly unanimous vote by the Board on Supervisors on August 27 “declaring the policy that the Continuum of Care Plan 2001-2006 is the City and County of San Francisco’s official homeless policy document governing the development of an integrated, effective, and coordinated system of health care, housing, employment, and support services to end homelessness.”

Ten supes voted aye; one — Gavin Newsom — was absent. Not that it mattered: Our Mayor refused to endorse the program.

For those who, like Newsom, were absent when the Continuum of Care was first introduced, an excerpt is reprinted below; the entire document is available at www.ci.sf.ca.us/lchb. It lacks the headline-grabbing excitement of an attack on incivility, but it contains a lot of practical thinking about a difficult problem. Much of it is, in fact, amazingly similar to Newsom’s proposals. And the problem still lies in the execution.

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Continuum of care

A five-year strategic plan for homeless services, 2001-2006

I always knew I was just one paycheck away from being homeless.
— Continuum of Care Consumer Focus Group Participant

San Francisco remains committed to its vision of eradicating homelessness. Our goal is to move toward a continuum of integrated services that focuses on the causes of homelessness: poverty; lack of housing, living-wage jobs, vocational skills, and health care; and the disruptions resulting from substance abuse, severe mental illness, and domestic violence. Adults and children grappling with homelessness experience hunger, health crises, victimization, alienation, humiliation, and even death. Survival on the streets requires strength and stamina, often in short supply among children and people who are ill, addicted or elderly.

This Continuum of Care plan, which maps San Francisco’s strategies for ending homelessness, is the work of hundreds of participants from all sectors of our community. Its pages echo the diverse voices involved in crafting the plan, ranging from people who are homeless to social service providers, from advocates to City managers. The process involved residents of neighborhoods where people who are homeless have traditionally been underserved, as well as seasoned veterans of the central city’s social service agencies. Collectively, those who crafted this plan bring hundreds of years of expertise in program design, social work, public policy; many have first-hand experience with homelessness. Such a community process, while time-intensive and undertaking, is critical to the plan’s success, as it guarantees the support and commitment of all who gave of their time, energy and passion.

In developing the plan, participants drew on their experience and their vision, as well as research done to date in San Francisco regarding homelessness, housing, employment, and other topics. In addition, Continuum of Care committees devised original research tools to guide their work and ensure extensive participation by people who are homeless: a Family Shelter Survey of 40 homeless families and 46 family shelter providers; seven Consumer Focus Groups conducted in six neighborhoods, which gathered input from 100 currently homeless individuals; and a survey of over 400 people who are homeless at over 50 street and shelter sites throughout the city. These surveys targeted the participation of residents of all San Francisco neighborhoods, including those which have traditionally been underserved by the existing network of homeless services and housing: Bayview-Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, the Mission District, and the Western Addition/ Haight Ashbury.

No new needs assessment of people who are homeless was commissioned; the ongoing debates around a true definition of homelessness and the number of people who are homeless in our city were not resolved. As the Local Board moves into implementation of the Continuum of Care plan, it will continue to grapple with the complex issues of enumeration and demographics, which face all communities where people who are homeless live.

The principal challenge our community faces in preventing and eradicating homelessness is a citywide housing crisis…. The loss of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing, a source of stability for many poor people, has had a dramatic impact on the overall housing market. With some of the nation’s highest housing prices and rental housing that is barely affordable or available for middle-income people, low-income and homeless individuals are locked out completely….

The scarcity of living wage jobs for people exiting welfare, and the lack of training and education that prevents many low-income and homeless individuals from obtaining employment in the technology sector, have intensified the gap between San Francisco's haves and the have-nots….

In an effort to stem the growth of homelessness, this plan contains action steps related to expanding eligibility for and funding of rental assistance programs for the working poor; increasing legal assistance programs to tenants vulnerable to eviction; improving housing assistance services to individuals discharged from jails and hospitals and to youth aging out of foster care; and improving access to preventative social services, through Neighborhood Resource Centers and other agencies….

The lack of consistent, accurate, accessible information on homeless services is consistently cited by people who are homeless as a major barrier to accessing emergency shelter, health care, housing, support services and employment opportunities….