In the Midst of a Homeless Epidemic, the City Is Pausing Homeless Outreach

Randy Shaw | August 29, 2014 | Story Politics

Randy Shaw is the Editor-in-Chief of Beyond Chron. Reprinted with permission.

The San Francisco Health Department announced this week that it was cutting back on services provided by its Homeless Outreach Team through the end of November. The action comes despite the Board of Supervisors sharply increasing homeless outreach funding to meet the increasing number of homeless persons in city neighborhoods.

The action also follows increased complaints across the city about people sprawled out on sidewalks in need of assistance. This has nothing to do with homeless people allegedly being driven from Mid-Market to other neighborhoods, and everything to do with rising homeless numbers in major cities across the nation. Last spring, Supervisor Mark Farrell took leadership in sponsoring a $1.3 million budget supplemental to address this increased need for homeless outreach. To the credit of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee, city officials stepped up to proactively address the growing need for outreach services.

Yet now we learn for the very first time that the Health Department plans to suspend key homeless outreach activities from September 1 through November 30. This was not disclosed during the Board hearing on the supplemental. In fact, when Supervisor John Avalos questioned the need for a supplemental rather than waiting for the normal budget process, I joined DPH in expressing the urgency in getting this money out on the street.

I criticized Avalos at the time for not appreciating the urgency of the problem. But his skepticism about DPH’s ability to get the new outreach teams going proved accurate. Now it appears that, contrary to what DPH told the Supervisors and the public, it also sees no urgency for translating its budget supplemental into increased homeless outreach.

CW Nevius recently described an increased need for homeless outreach in Duboce Triangle. Yet DPH is now reducing these vital services. And they are doing so after telling the mayor, Supervisor Farrell, the Board of Supervisors, and the public that a supplemental appropriation was essential due to the urgency of the need for more outreach.

DPH director Barbara Garcia’s August 26 memo details the reductions:

From September 1st through November 30th, SFHOT will:

Discontinue transport and outreach services on Saturdays and Sundays

Remain staffed 24 hours per day Monday through Friday; however expect delays

Prioritize SF Police and SF Fire Departments requests to transport to Sobering Center

Prioritize citizen and 311 calls regarding homeless people in distress

Not accept new case management clients until further notice

We will have one vehicle available for each shift. Thus calls for transportation of clients on weekdays will experience longer wait times. Please consider utilizing taxi vouchers or other resources to transfer clients who need only routine care.

The ban on new case management clients means more troubled people on the streets. The alleged reason for slashing outreach services is that DPH has replaced the longtime nonprofit contractor—CATS—with a new nonprofit organization under DPH control. It’s too soon to evaluate the impact of this switch, but not too soon to conclude that suspending outreach services should not have been a consequence.

New staff could have been hired while CATS phased out. The memo does not identify the level of cost savings associated with the reduced services but you can be sure DPH will not be refunding the $1.5 million budget supplemental it fought so hard to get. DPH never told the Supervisors last spring that it intended to put the CATS contract out to bid, and would connect the selection of a new contractor to a slashing of outreach services. If such information had been disclosed, it is doubtful the supplemental money for outreach services would have been allocated.

The public seems entirely unaware of the mess DPH has made with its housing stabilization program, which is often the end product of its street outreach. As I detailed on May 14, DPH officials from Director Barbara Garcia on down knowingly placed homeless people in some of the worst maintained SRO’s in San Francisco. The City Attorney filed suit on May 12, 2014 against the family operating these hotels, whose rooms DPH continued to use despite being shown photographs and housing code citations demonstrating a pattern of violations.

Any nonprofit group engaged in subsidizing rundown units over a multi-year period would have had their contracts revoked long ago. But DPH is given free reign to use hundreds of SRO units however it seems fit. It only stopped using the long complained of hotels when the City Attorney’s lawsuit gave them no choice.

Last October Mayor Lee gave the city a “C” grade on homelessness. I agreed with his assessment, as the city’s “A” efforts in permanent housing are offset by its D grade on homeless outreach. Since that time, the number of people in need on Tenderloin streets has greatly increased. And other neighborhoods are also calling for a smarter and stronger homeless outreach effort. That’s why Farrell and his colleagues joined the mayor in backing increased funding for outreach last spring.

But we now see that these funds have made no difference. And whether they will in the future is anyone’s guess. With homeless outreach now being further cut almost until the end of the year, the Mayor needs to downgrade the city’s homeless report card from C—Satisfactory to D—Needs to Improve. And as long as DPH is allowed to continue to spend millions without accountability, the city’s grade will remain unsatisfactory.

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