San Francisco’s Homeless Czar Talks Encampment Strategy

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Still in its infancy, San Francisco’s five-month-old Department of Homelessness is developing new methods for moving an estimated 800 individuals living in 78 encampments around the city off the streets, according to Jeff Kositsky, who directs the new department that will eventually have some 110 people under his direction. 

The department started with Islais Creek south of the Dogpatch in late August, then moved to the Mission District where it is still working north of 16th Street. Next, the department is likely to work on removing encampments in South of Market.  

In each operation, the department is trying to move people off the streets in humane and practical ways, says Kositsky who is also figuring out the new organization of his office, which now includes workers formerly with the Mayor’s Office of Housing, Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency. Eventually all will be under one roof at 440 Turk St.

Even before that happens, however, the new department’s priority is to resolve encampments, a phenomenon Kositsky, formerly the executive director of Hamilton Family Center,  is intent on addressing systematically.  One of the priorities, he said in an hour-long interview with Mission Local, was to avoid normalizing the option of pitching a tent and living on San Francisco’s sidewalks.

“We do not want to normalize people staying in tents in large numbers,” he said. “It’s behavior that’s not compatible with an urban environment.”

However, he said his method of moving tents off the city’s streets is fundamentally different from the sweeps the city has done previously. These require weeks of outreach work, connecting homeless individuals to services and helping them prepare to move on.

But he cautioned that getting rid of the encampments also means facing the reality that the city does not have the resources to subsidize housing for every individual on the streets. One key to helping reduce homelessness is to help individuals self-resolve their living situations in various ways including mending relationships with former housemates, offering them a ticket home, resolving landlord disputes, or even simply paying off utilities bills that got out of hand.

The city has more than 6,000 units of housing specifically for homeless individuals, with about 400 of those units becoming available through turnover every year. Earlier this month the city announced the opening of 244 permanent supportive housing units in former SROs, 50 of them in the Mission. The city’s homeless population is estimated to be between 6,600 and nearly 10,000 depending on the count criteria.

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But even under these circumstances, a good number of the homeless end up on the street. In the case of Islais Creek, for example, six of 62 in a long-standing encampment stayed in the neighborhood, moving a few blocks away. Four of the campers moved back in with people they used to live with. A few took advantage of the Homeward Bound program, which buses homeless individuals to friends or relatives who have expressed willingness to take them in.  

Of the remaining 45 who went either to a Navigation Center or a shelter, 25 were able to resolve their homelessness, and about half ended up back on the streets, Kositsky said.

He said the passage of Proposition Q, the controversial tent encampment ban that prescribes a 24-hour notice and offer of shelter before tents can be removed, will not affect his method of resolving encampments.

A sales tax that would have raised funding to allow for the allocation of funds to assisting the homeless and improving transit infrastructure failed to get approval from voters – the mayor has canceled the creation of these funds. Kositsky said the city is trying to identify other sources of revenue to expand programs.

In the Mission, Kositsky has said that the area of focus has been from 16th to 19th streets, South Van Ness Avenue to Bryant streets. When that is cleared, the Department will focus on the areas north of 14th Street.

Here are some more comments from Kositsky from an interview with Mission Local, edited for clarity and brevity:

Encampment Resolution

Jeff Kositsky: What we decided to do, rather than running around playing whack-a-mole, is we’ll use this list that we have, a survey by DPW (the Department of Public Works), sorted by the biggest encampments.They rank them [by how dangerous they are], based on subjective measurements, but better than nothing.

There are usually informal leaders in encampments. We identify who those are, set up a community meeting, get a very good turnout, we do it right out on the street. We explain to people that we’re here because the neighbors are worried about the people living in the tents, it’s not healthy or safe for them, and that they’re the affecting quality of life in the neighborhood and we really need to resolve this encampment.

We’ll set a date, set the stage for that, go out and do an assessment of everybody in the encampment. We try to figure out a plan to meet those needs. People who get into shelters need a TB test, so we do those in the field. We bring out Calfresh, food stamps, and GA [General Assistance] come out and enroll people in benefits.

In some cases, depending on where it is, we’ll bring out porta-potties. We’re not doing that in the Mission district, but we’re doing in other places. We bring hygiene kits, access to showers. We’re working together this whole time with DPH. If we find people who have psychiatric issues or substance abuse issues, we’ll get them right into treatment. Well, not right in, it takes about four weeks.

We start to make a plan for folks about where they’re gonna go. We set aside beds in the navigation center, primarily the one on Mission. As those upen up we start to move people out of the encampment into one of those beds.

The big limiting factor that we have are the number of beds we can put people in. To fix that we’re opening a new navigation center. It’ll have 150 beds and will basically double our capacity from what we have right now, and it’ll just be dedicated to that team.

Once we’ve cleared out an encampment area, the Mayor has made it clear that the police are to make sure that the encampments don’t reform. Are they doing that perfectly? No. Are they doing it pretty well? Yes.

Next Steps

One of the things we need to do is to make sure that our sickest and longest term homeless are getting prioritized for housing and that’s not how it works now. We’re going to create this new system that’s called the ONE system, Online Navigation and Entry system. Everybody will be assessed with the same assessment, every service provider will have access to the same data system, and it will allow us to identify who’s been homeless the longest and who’s the sickest and make sure that they get shelter first and that they get housing first.

If we have more resources I think we need to reopen resource centers. One of the mistakes I think was made around the country as the whole country moved toward this housing first model was, housing solves homelessness, shelter only solves sleep. So everybody said, well, we should solve homelessness, not just sleep. But the bottom line is that if you don’t solve sleep at least a little bit, it starts to impact not only homeless people, it impacts neighborhoods.

My constituents are everybody, not just homeless people, it’s everybody who lives and works and visits this city. I need to think about in my job and how the work that I try to do can better try to improve their lives, whether you’re living in a condo in the Mission and there’s somebody pooping on your doorstep every night, or whether you’re a schizophrenic homeless person who has been homeless for ten years – I need to look at all of that.

In looking at all of that, what I see pretty clearly is we need to more places for people to go so they can take care of their basic needs, they can exchange needles or throw a way needles, go to the bathroom, take a shower, wash their clothes, they can sit down somewhere, get a little break from the street. We need to rebuild that infrastructure that used to exist.

Other Ideas

This one maybe wacky idea that sort of percolated out of this is: What if we just let two homeless people stay on every block, either in a tent, or we built some kind of tiny home for them, and said, you know, you take care of the street and the neighbors will kinda take care of you, keep you safe, bring you some food. I don’t know if that would work or not, maybe it’s totally crazy.

Another possible model that we need to start thinking about more is that I think homeless people and housed people who are in the same neighborhoods need to sit down in a room together and have a dialogue about empathy. I actually think most housed people are actually very empathetic toward homeless folks. I go to community meetings and, yeah, people are pissed but it’s like one person out of every 10 at the most that feels like a hater to me. Most people are understanding, they’re mad at the city, they’re not mad at homeless people. Some people are just mad at the homeless people.

Mission Local: Is this a wacky idea that you’re seriously thinking of implementing, of having two people on a block…

JK: No, I’m not seriously thinking of implementing it, this other idea I’m about to describe is what I’m trying to think about implementing. Which is how do you get homeless people to have empathy toward people who are housed? I don’t think that they’re really thinking clearly about how they’re impacting other people, they’re thinking about their own situation, which is understandable – they’re in a desperate situation. And I actually believe that if we could bring people together and say, hey, you know, we don’t really want you to be here, but we understand you don’t have anywhere else to go, and that the city is trying to find resources for you, but in the meantime, could you clean your shit up? I’ve seen this in some encampments that are more organized than others, where they’ve got a place for people to go to the bathroom, women will cut off the top of gallon jugs and pee in those, they’ll keep their sharps kind of all in the same place, and they think about the area around them and they try to keep quiet. 

Portable Toilets

We do not want to normalize people staying in tents in large numbers. We will [put up toilets] when it makes sense to do it, and where it makes sense to do it, and I’m not going to tell you the formula or how we decide to do that because we make the decisions based on an assessment of the situation. It’s not a formula, I’m not going to say well we’ll do it here but not there. We look at what’s going on what’s happening in the neighborhood, the prevalence of crime, how close it is to a place where somebody can go to the bathroom right now, we’ll do it based on that. But we’re not going to just sort of pro forma, across-the-board, put toilets up.

Encampment Residents

ML: So what do you think motivates people to live in encampments rather than more spread out if they’re hotbeds of crime, etc.? Some of the ones that I’ve talked to say they know people there, they have relatives there, they have partners there, people look out for each other’s stuff, they feel like they’re being protected against rape, sexual assault, theft…

JK: But they’re not. I mean, I would say, look a little bit harder and understand people are going to tell you what they think you want to hear, so those relationships are incredibly fragile…When we move encampments whole cloth quickly into the Navigation Center, you see those relationships unwind. In unproductive ways sometimes. So I think people do it because for the reasons you said, also because there’s easier access to drugs because in the Mission district at least, not every encampment is like this, there’s a couple guys who have been there in RVs who are hiring those guys to do bikes for them. So it’s a place of employment. You also have women coming in from other parts of the Bay Area to prostitute themselves in exchange for drugs. I met two women at the Best Buy who had just come in from Marin to party in the tents, is what they told me.

There’s as many reasons as there are people in the tents. It’s also human behavior, human nature, to want to be around other people. But I will tell you, there’s way more homeless people on the streets who are not in encampments than there are who are in encampments. It’s not the majority of the homeless people, it’s the minority. I will also tell you that the people in tents are younger and whiter than the overall homeless population.

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2 Comments

  1. Dougsf

    You guys are doing really great reporting. Thank you and keep it up.

  2. Kevin Smith

    San Francisco has the worst roads in the country ! Why, because we blow so much money housing 6,200 bums ! I’m not a hater just a realist !

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