Time for a reboot on homelessness

  • Wednesday June 29, 2016
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Time for a reboot on homelessness

This week the San Francisco Chronicle introduced the SF Homeless Project, a coalition of more than 70 other news organizations that agree to devote coverage to various homeless issues and potential solutions. The Bay Area Reporter is proud to be part of this project, as we have reported on homelessness from an LGBT perspective for many years. LGBTQ people make up 29 percent of the city's homeless population, according to last year's Point-In-Time Count. That figure was the same in 2013, so the population has remained constant, or more likely, has increased. The actual number of homeless people in San Francisco is difficult to ascertain " figures range from 6,686 to 10,000 to a startling 29,400 mentioned in a 2014 report on the city's HIV/AIDS housing five-year plan. Homelessness is a serious issue for all of us, not the least, of course, for those living on the streets or in shelters.

Homelessness in San Francisco has vexed political leaders and nonprofit officials for decades and the city spends $241 million a year on homeless programs. Mayor Ed Lee recently announced a new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the goal of which is to streamline city services for street people into a more direct focus on housing and counseling.

Lee needs to think outside the box, like he did a year ago with the development of Navigation Centers, which have proved successful because they let homeless people from an encampment stay together and, more importantly, they are allowed to bring their possessions and pets with them. That has made a huge difference, but there aren't enough of them. Just this week, Lee opened the second Navigation Center at the Civic Center Hotel, at Market and 12th streets. It has 93 beds. The city's first center, in the Mission, has served 550 clients, with over 80 percent of them exiting to stable supportive housing or have reunited with friends and family, according to the mayor's office.

But more needs to be done as homelessness is at peak levels. There is a segment of homeless people who need the help and the programs are useful to them. There are others who resist city social workers' efforts to get them into a shelter or supportive housing. Unless people are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, the mentally ill or addicted can't be forced into care. Some don't think they need help; others don't want it. One potential program that's been discussed at City Hall is wet houses " places where alcoholics can live and drink on the premises. It's been tried successfully elsewhere " San Francisco officials have visited them " and city leaders should establish a pilot program so that we can see if it makes a difference here.

We'd also like to see more collaboration among the more than 70 private and nonprofit agencies that work with people living on the street. The LGBT community was a leader in HIV/AIDS nonprofit organizations in the early days of the epidemic. They offered everything from emergency cash to food to benefits counseling to access to medication. Now, 35 years into AIDS, it's become a chronic disease for most people and demand for services has shifted, leading some of these organizations to merge in an effort to save on administration and other costs. The Department of Public Health has allowed these mergers, and Health Director Barbara Garcia recently told us that she's "always looking at" opportunities for more efficient operations. Similar consolidation should be explored for the homeless nonprofits, and we'd encourage the new Department of Homeless director, Jeff Kositsky, to, as he told the Chronicle, "be more creative." Money that could be saved could be used for additional direct client services, which in our mind is always preferable to executive salaries.

The SF Homeless Project is attempting to shine a light on the problems of homelessness so that Bay Area residents will learn about the history, failed efforts, and new emerging strategies. It's an issue that we must address urgently. Speaking at the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club Pride breakfast last Sunday, Clarence B. Jones, who was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal attorney, told the more than 800 people in attendance " including political leaders, law enforcement, activists, and others " that it's time to "reset and reboot our moral compass." Johnson, who lives on the Peninsula, said he sees homelessness "in the richest country in the world" even as he sees construction cranes in the city and in the South Bay building expensive housing towers and office space.

"I see homeless people in San Francisco and Oakland. I ask myself, we have the Uber app, the OpenTable app, the Airbnb app. Elon Musk fired a rocket three times into space. I know we have Fitbit, Apple Watch, and I ask myself, we have all these people who write code but we are unable to pinpoint where the homeless are and where they can live," Johnson said. "Until we add this issue of homelessness those cranes and buildings are monuments of our moral obscenity. It's time for us to stop waiting."

In the next several months, City Hall needs to reboot, examine, and implement fresh ideas. Anything is worth attempting to reduce the number of people sleeping on the street. In a city as wealthy as San Francisco, it's time for the politicians and advocates to stop bickering and come together.