SF homeless chief to take over city’s troubled encampment street

San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2020

By Kevin Fagan and Heather Knight


Jeff Kositsky, who helped create San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing when he was picked as its first director in 2016, is leaving his post to take charge of the city’s front-line team tackling its homelessness crisis on the streets.


Kositsky said he’s ready for a change, and the Healthy Streets Operation Center — a joint venture of city departments including Kositsky’s and police — has slipped badly over the past year in its mission of moving people into housing and shelter and clearing out nuisance camps and behavior. His last day at the homelessness department will be March 21.


“I’m really proud of what we’ve done, and I’m as optimistic as I was the day I took the job,” Kositsky told The Chronicle. “This work is not easy, it takes time, but we’re making forward progress.”


He said the mayor asked him to take over the joint venture’s operation center, which was excoriated in a February report by the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, a city oversight panel, for emphasizing crackdowns on tents and behavior over helping street people move inside. The crackdowns are primarily led by crews from the police department and the Department of Public Works, whose director, Mohammed Nuru, resigned after being federally charged with fraud.


“Conditions continue to be bad in the streets,” Kositsky said. “Things got better in 2018, but then worse in 2019, and the mayor wants me to focus on this.”


Since starting his job, the biennial one-night homeless count has risen from 6,686 to last year’s tally of 8,011. In the same period, Kositsky’s department housed or sent home to relatives and friends more than 7,000 people, and created more than 500 units of permanent supportive housing and nearly 1,000 shelter beds.


The department has 120 full-time positions and oversees more than $300 million in programs and services, about half of which goes toward housing people in complexes with on-site services.


“Addressing the conditions on our streets is our top priority,” Mayor London Breed said in an email about why she asked Kositsky to take over the operation center. “Jeff is the right person to refocus our efforts, coordinate the different city departments that are involved in (the center), and help people off the streets, out of tents, and into shelter and services.


“We’re adding resources, we have a plan, and now we have an experienced leader to help us meet these challenges,” she added.


Kositsky’s spokeswoman and strategic director, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, will take over as interim director of the homelessness department while the mayor conducts a nationwide search for Kositsky’s replacement.


Kositsky’s shift comes as the operation center team, formed by the late Mayor Ed Lee and continued by Breed as the city’s prime response to address its homelessness crisis, has become almost totally ineffective — at least in any long-term way.


Data on the team’s 2019 performance demonstrates that the perception of many San Franciscans that City Hall isn’t addressing the crisis in a competent fashion is merited.


“Both housed and unhoused people and advocates have been really unhappy the past year, and we have data that shows why,” Kositsky said.


For example, the number of large encampments of at least six tents increased from two to 15 over the course of 2019. The number of tents was up 31% from January 2019 to October 2019, and 649 tents and other structures occupied by homeless people were counted in January of this year. Vehicles with people living in them increased 24% from April 2019 to October 2019.


And when the operation center got involved, outcomes weren’t good. Of 650 homeless people placed in Navigation Centers or traditional homeless shelters by that team, 95% returned directly to the street rather than getting help finding a more permanent solution. That was up significantly from 58% the year before.


Of all the times that teams from the center tried to interact with homeless people in 2019, just 2.4% of encounters with police officers resulted in being connected to services. And just 17% of the encounters with the Homeless Outreach Team resulted in connections to services.


So what went wrong in 2019? A whole lot.


A presentation given by Kositsky to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board last month cited an array of problems, including inconsistent strategies, a loss of focus on preventing large encampments from returning and a lack of accountability because the Healthy Streets Operation Center lacked a leader.


One change, Kositsky said, will be directing resources more strategically rather than prioritizing only complaints from 311. He said 311 calls will still be answered and dealt with, but won’t compose the center’s entire efforts. There have been many calls, for example, about people who appear homeless but aren’t, which takes time away from helping people who are actually in need.


Also, centering the city’s response around 311 calls tends to mean that wealthier neighborhoods get disproportionate attention compared with their levels of homelessness. Kositsky said residents of the Tenderloin and Bayview tend to call 311 less often even though far more homeless people live in those neighborhoods.


“We’re going back to the way we did it before, which is the calls get triaged, and the various departments will handle those calls,” he said. “I think it’s great when government can stand up and say, ‘Hey, we tried something and it didn’t work, and we’re going to try something else.’”

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