San Francisco Public Press, March 19, 2021
By Nuala Bishari
A new city agency, founded in the wake of rising concerns about the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s ability to house the city’s homeless population, aims to bring 2,000 people into permanent shelter by the end of the year.
The Office of Housing Opportunities will be a division of the COVID Command Center, shifting responsibilities away from the homelessness department. Of particular focus will be housing the 1,880 residents of the shelter-in-place hotels, a program launched in 2020 to bring indoors vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic. Directing the effort is Chris Block, formerly the director of the chronic homelessness division at Tipping Point, a nonprofit focused on battling poverty and homelessness.
It’s unclear how the office will be funded, or if it will receive any portion of the Department of Homelessness’s $562 million annual budget. Through the city’s communications hub at the Department of Emergency Management, a spokesperson who would not divulge their name declined to answer questions about either agency’s budget or staffing.
However, the new office has already begun reaching out to community partners about its mission. “The guiding philosophy of the new office is that San Francisco actually does have the resources, creativity, and political leadership to house many more people, and in a much faster timeframe, than it has been historically able to do,” Block said in a presentation shared during a meeting with housing service providers Thursday.
The new office’s origins
Block appears to have started laying the groundwork for the new agency in February, if not before. On Feb. 15, he emailed service providers outlining how he would address concerns that 50 organizations raised in a letter sent to Mayor London Breed — not to him — five days before. Breed did not respond to the service providers’ letter until this Thursday. She summarized what the department has done during the pandemic but addressed few of the providers’ concerns.
In the letter, providers requested increased collaboration with the city, faster placement of hotel residents in housing and reduced vacancies in the city’s permanent supportive housing stock.
In Block’s letter, he referenced all three points. He noted “the current spike in vacancies and the terrible relationship between housing providers and the Department of Homelessness,” and wrote that progress “will require the Department of Homelessness to relinquish control which it has taken because of a misguided belief that controlling the process will assure success.” Instead, he suggests the department handle contracts, but outsource the day-to-day responsibilities for housing the city’s homeless population.
When he sent the February letter, Block was still a director at Tipping Point, which has close ties to the city’s homelessness department. Interim homelessness department director Abigail Stewart-Kahn, who this week announced she would leave the agency in May, was listed as a “Tipping Point Community Fellow” during most of the first three years of her tenure at the city agency.
The new office “will allow the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to be freed from this temporary COVID response and instead be able to focus on longer-term initiatives like implementing the Mayor’s Homeless Recovery Plan, planning for the next round of Prop. C allocations and re-inflating our shelter system once our health orders allow us to do so,” a COVID Command Center spokesperson, who declined to be named, said in an email.
Proposition C, passed in 2018, increased funds for homelessness services by about $300 million annually. The Mayor’s Homeless Recovery Plan aims to create 6,000 indoor placements for homeless people through shelters and housing acquisitions.
The Office of Housing Opportunities set the goal of housing 2,000 people by the end of 2021 “no matter what” according to Block’s presentation. The presentation described a wider scope of responsibilities than outlined in the city’s email, indicating that in addition to fast-tracking the process to house people in shelter-in-place hotels, the office will be a “central entity coordinating placement for all populations experiencing homelessness.”
Breed appointed Stewart-Kahn to head the agency on March 5, 2020, less than two weeks before the city began sheltering-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sam Dodge, who led the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing during its first year of creation, will step in as acting interim director when Stewart-Kahn leaves.
Missteps in city’s approach to housing homeless
The change in leadership and creation of the Office of Housing Opportunities comes after a fraught year of political battles across the city, as the department, supervisors and the mayor’s office argued over how to house people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring the city to put more people living in shelters or on the streets in empty hotels that eventually became known as shelter-in-place hotels, only to have the directives disregarded by the mayor and administrators.
Recently, the Board of Supervisors approved an emergency ordinance to bring more people off the streets and into the shelter-in-place hotels, and undo a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing policy that bumped people living outdoors to the bottom of the housing list.
At the same time, the vacancy rates in the city’s permanent supportive housing stock have risen far beyond its department’s goal of 3%. In January, 766 units — nearly 1 in 10 — were vacant, while 1,200 people approved for housing sat on the waitlist.
Block has extensive experience navigating the bureaucracy required to get homeless people into housing. Prior to his involvement at Tipping Point, he was the founding director of coordinated entry — the system by which homeless people are assessed and prioritized for housing — at Episcopal Community Services. He did not respond to text messages and phone calls requesting comment.
Dodge, who takes over as interim director the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in May, called Block “a proud father and a nice person who also happens to be a great leader in solving homelessness.”
“This to me was an excellent hire,” he said in an email. “He has already reached out and I look forward to working together.”