San Francisco taps a new homeless department chief as it struggles with unsheltered

San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2021

By Trisha Thadani


San Francisco has hired a permanent director for its Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, a demanding and crucial position in a city that has long struggled to help its most vulnerable.


Mayor London Breed announced Thursday that Shireen McSpadden, the current executive director of the Department of Disability and Aging Services, will take over May 1 and oversee a department with around $600 million in funding to help the city’s more than 8,000 homeless people.


McSpadden’s executive team will include two new hires: Noelle Simmons, the current deputy director at the Human Services Agency, and Cynthia Nagendra, the executive director at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, a research institute at UCSF that studies homelessness.


McSpadden will take over a department that has struggled to make progress since it was created under Mayor Ed Lee in 2016 — even as its budget swelled over the past few years. An August city report found the department was understaffed and unprepared to help the city’s most vulnerable. It’s also one of the few major departments in the city without a formal oversight commission.


The homeless department spends more than $300 million and a 2018 ballot measure is expected to raise an additional $250 million to $300 million per year for the department, beginning this year. An additional $500 million of one-time funding, which was tied up in court until last fall, has also been collected.


Meanwhile, the Department of Public Health spends hundreds of millions more trying to address mental health and drug addiction, often among the same population.


“Our response to homelessness is one of the most important, pressing and complex issues facing this city as we emerge from this pandemic,” McSpadden said in a statement.


Homelessness is one of San Francisco’s most vexing problems, and elected officials have long vowed to address it. But promises, plans and new programs have fallen short and the tragedy on the city’s streets has worsened. The department has been without a permanent leader since early 2020, when former director Jeff Kositsky stepped down shortly before the pandemic began.


Interim Director Abigail Stewart-Kahn resigned last month after leading the department through the tumultuous past year.


Leading the homeless department has been a difficult post, even before the pandemic squeezed the city budget and forced shelters to reduce capacity. It’s a position that often gets mired in City Hall politics, and also one that must balance the needs of the city’s homeless with demands from residents, businesses and advocates.


“It’s a meat grinder of a job,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman previously told The Chronicle.


One main driver of the city’s homeless problem is the dearth of affordable housing. But many of those on the streets also struggle with mental health and drug use, which can make it difficult to bring people inside.


A record number of people died last year from drug overdoses, many of whom lived in the city’s single-room occupancy units or in leased hotel rooms. The surge can largely be attributed to fentanyl, a dangerous opioid that’s flooding the streets.


“Anyone who walks around our city right now can see clearly that the city’s response to homelessness is failing,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, one of the most consistent critics of the city’s homeless department. “We need a transformational leader who can effectively lead our homelessness response.”


Breed said she chose McSpadden because of her experience leading “innovative and effective efforts to care for some of our most vulnerable residents.” During the pandemic, McSpadden ran the food security unit at COVID Command Center as hunger skyrocketed.


Simmons will serve as McSpadden’s chief deputy, and Nagendra will help implement the department’s long-term goals. These two new positions were specifically created to help the new director.


McSpadden — who was not available for comment Thursday — will take over as the city emerges from the pandemic and contends with the economic fallout. Before the pandemic, there were more than 8,000 homeless people in the city. Experts say that number has likely increased, as more people have been pushed toward poverty.


Over the past year, the department had to completely overhaul its homeless response. Shelters had to thin out and stop accepting new residents, which caused the number of tents in the Tenderloin to expand. That prompted a lawsuit from UC Hastings, businesses and residents, which the city settled a few months later by promising to find temporary shelter and housing for those living in the tents.


The city scrambled to lease more than 2,000 hotel rooms for the homeless and also created several “safe” tent sites. While those sites have helped many off the streets, they are temporary measures that the city must reassess over the next year.


In her new role, McSpadden will oversee the mayor’s Homeless Recovery Plan, which includes a promise that anyone who moved into the hotel rooms will be offered housing when they have to move out. If the plan doesn’t work, people could land back on the streets when the program ends, likely in the fall.


The mayor’s plan also includes the biggest expansion of the city’s permanent supportive housing stock in 20 years.


Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the city’s Coalition on Homelessness, said the advocacy group is excited to have an “experienced administrator to breathe fresh perspectives and know-how at a time we desperately need it.”

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