SF to make major changes to homeless response operations

San Francisco Examiner, March 2, 2020

By Joshua Sabatini

HSH director: ‘we were really harming people experiencing homelessness’

San Francisco will hire a new manager for its street homeless response operations who will report directly to Mayor London Breed’s chief of staff, as The City makes a shift in its strategy to combat homelessness and street encampments.

Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told the Local Homeless Coordinating Board Monday there are three main changes coming to the Healthy Streets Operation Center, also known as HSOC, which launched in January 2018.

HSOC, which operates out of the Department of Emergency Management, is The City’s coordinated response to homeless encampments and is a collaboration among multiple city departments. It has been criticised for operating without community engagement and responding to the homeless with a police or Public Works response rather than services, resulting in sweeps that fail to get homeless people the help they need.

Kositsky on Monday acknowledged those concerns, saying that by the end of 2018 and through 2019, HSOC’s response was focused primarily on responding to 311 complaints. By contrast, when it initially launched, the response focused on areas with high concentration of homeless persons and didn’t rely on complaints.

The change in approach was not a success.

“Essentially, we tried to spread not enough butter over too much bread, and running around responding to 311 calls had a number of impacts,” Kositsky said.

Complaints went up and few were being helped off the streets.

“In addition to the 311 calls increasing slightly and the problem not getting better, we were really harming people experiencing homelessness, not intentionally,” he said. “Our outcomes were not good.”

Among the most striking findings from 2019 data: “Of the 650 clients placed into HSOC shelter beds, 619 (95.2 percent) returned to the street, based on HSH data. In 2018, just 58 percent of HSOC-placed clients returned to the streets,” according to the department’s report to the board last week.

Kositsky said that the results were better when HSOC focused on areas where they identified large areas of homelessness and worked with them to connect them to services more methodically.

He said that the complaint-driven response resulted in homeless persons not receiving proper respect and failed to “work with them to match what they want with what we have available.”

The operations tended to place people in the wrong location and “maybe create some kind of anger or frustration with people who are out on the streets,” he said.

“Our shelter beds are quite expensive to operate and we can’t be using them to have a 4 percent outcome,” Kositsky said.

HSOC will create a “zone-focused approach,” concentrating efforts in most impacted neighborhoods selected by the Controller’s Office through data analysis. He said the decision was made by eight department heads involved with HSOC.

Kositsky said that “nobody is saying the city is not going to respond to 311 calls. That is not what is being said. The City will continue to do its best to respond to 311 calls.”

The new manager of HSOC, who The City is expected to announce this week or next week, will “make sure that the work is getting done in a clear and consistent manner.”

The manager will be under the Department of Emergency Management and report directly to Mayor London Breed’s chief of staff, who is currently former District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd.

“The Mayor’s Office is taking greater responsibility for this and greater oversight around what actually happens,” Kositsky said.

The manager will also establish a working group to have some level of input over HSOC, which would include a homeless advocate, someone who provides homeless services, a business advocate, someone in the tourism industry and someone representing a neighborhood group.

Kositsky said that the change is informed by the data.

“The bottom line is we do have data. It does show clearly when we did things one way it worked better and when we did it another way it worked worse. So we are going back to what works better,” he said.

Kositsky’s comments Monday followed last week’s quarterly meeting the board held on HSOC when the latest data was presented.

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