Officials from the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive housing on Thursday laid out their ambitious five-year homelessness reduction strategy for a group of community members at Centro Latino, a Mission District community center.
The 20-odd community members, while generally impressed, still wondered how the strategy would address mental illness, sweeps by police and easier access to shelters and Navigation Centers.
The new plan, first unveiled in October, seeks to end family homelessness, cut chronic homelessness in half, and rid the streets of large encampments — all within the next five years.
Jeff Kositsky, the department’s director, said those goals will be accomplished mainly by integrating the 15 different databases now being used to track the unhoused through homeless, health and other services.
Kositsky said the coordinated approach would eliminate the need for homeless individuals to float around the archipelago of drop-in centers, shelters, hospitals, and transitional and supportive housing.
“This is dehumanizing, it’s trauma-inducing, it’s really ineffective and inefficient — and it’s a really bad way to treat any customer of any system,” Kositsky said.
He said the new system, called the Coordinated Entry System, would allow the city to better prioritize individuals in need, as well as match people with the right services based on the severity of their needs. Right now, “it’s all based on where that person wanders to,” Kositsky said.
“You’re having to go to all these different places and convince these case managers that you need what they have access to – and you have to be smart and savvy to get onto all of these lists,” he said. “That’s not a good way for the system to work.”
Instead, an individual will undergo only one intake assessment at so-called “Access Points.” So far, there are two access points — one downtown and another in the Bayview — that are dedicated to families. More will be added throughout the city.
The coordinated system will be fully implemented by December 2018.
Kositsky intends for his system to cut chronic homelessness in half by 2022, end family homelessness by 2021, and end long-term encampments by 2019. He also mentioned his intentions to open “a bunch” of Navigation Centers throughout the city to satisfy Mayor Ed Lee’s promise to get 1,000 people off the street this winter.
No amount of coordination, however, will erase the math of homelessness. Some 7,500 people are homeless in San Francisco, and the waitlist for entry into the single-adult shelter system (not including the Navigation Centers) was more than 1,000 people just a few months ago. Moreover, as participants pointed out, not nearly enough is being done for homeless people with mental health issues.
On Friday in the Mission District, a worker from the Department of Public Works helped a homeless man clear his tent from a street. As two police officers watched, sometimes helping the man figure out what to toss into two large plastic bags, the man muttered to himself and imaginary characters.
He was not violent, but he was clearly unable to make rational decisions. A few minutes later, he walked along 19th Street with the two bags, one shoe on, another forgotten. When asked his name, he said, “Larry,” before moving on.
Henry Khalil of Centro Latino brought up the issue on Thursday night.
“What are you doing to give more facilities to people who are mentally ill?” he asked
Kositsky agreed that the mental health issue is severe, explaining that 35 percent of the homeless population — about 3,000 of the 7,500 homeless individuals in the city — suffer from mental illness. “We definitely need to do more in this area,” he said.
But he noted that the city’s Department of Public Health recently opened a medical respite shelter and behavioral Navigation Center at San Francisco General Hospital. That shelter currently has four beds and will add another 11 this month.
He also said the health department is expanding its mobile crisis team, which, unlike the Homeless Outreach Team, is able to render on-the-spot medical treatment or check individuals into mental facilities. But it is unclear if there are adequate facilities.
Kositsky said that the new database will be linked to the health department’s CCMS database, a “super user” database for people who are severely ill, mentally ill and triple-diagnosed, “So we can work together better to know who needs housing,” he said.
Lastly, Kositsky said that 14 new staff members are being added to his department through a Medi-Cal waiver program. They will focus on wrapping services around high-need individuals.
“Even with this one system … if you’re severally mentally ill, this will still be a challenge, and you’re gonna need someone to physically help you get to where you need to go,” he said.
Carolyn Goossen, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s chief of staff, jumped in and said that, while Ronen’s office is now focused on bringing more Navigation Centers to the district, “the mental health issue is huge.”
“We’re going to be focusing on that, and push for more budget on that issue,” she said.
Mervyn Green, who lives in the Mission Hotel and works with the Central City SRO Collaborative, said that, currently, homeless people who seek housing are required to first live in a shelter before they can qualify for a room at an SRO. This limits the number of available shelter beds for people who really need them.
“If that system changed, it would open up the shelters,” Green said.
“It will change,” Kositsky replied.
Kositsky explained that the problem Green described — how people get beds — is exactly what the coordinated system is meant to address. He said Green would start seeing a difference in the next six months.
“I see a lot of early sweeps with no warning,” said Brian Edwards, who said he’s worked closely with the homeless population for the last five years.
Edwards said he’s noticed that sweeps by the SFPD and the Public Works — the constant “whack-a-mole” of encampments — only increases their drug use and the crime surrounding it.
“Because people are really, really stressed out,” Edwards said.
He asked Kositsky what his department can do to build more trust with the street population and give homeless residents clearer information on how to find services.
“That’s a good point,” Kositsky said. “And we should really be getting the (Homeless Outreach Team) to be more vocal when they’re talking to folks.”
More importantly, he said, his department is creating a unified strategy that every department can work around. “We’re mostly there, even though it may not look like it,” he said. “In the next year, it’s gonna get really different.”
“This idea of consolidating all the databases and making entry into the system less Kafkaesque seems like a great idea,” said Evan Owski, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. “But what I’m wondering is, if there’s anything there to make the shelters themselves more humane?”
Owski listed oft-cited complains by homeless individuals about shelters, like low storage space, early check-out times and restrictions on couples and pets.
Kositsky said that, moving forward, newly created shelters will follow the “low-barrier” model of the Navigation Centers, which allow pets, partners and possessions.
“They’re shelters as they should be,” Kositsky said. “I would love to go backwards and fix up and provide the resources to all the other shelters, and the bottom line is, we need another 1,000 shelter beds, and we need to get them up first.”