City’s Homeless Department May Get Long-Overdue Oversight

Frontline workers from organizations ranging from Homeless Prenatal to Hospitality House praised the plan for a commission to better manage the department.

It’s been three years almost to the day since the City of San Francisco created its Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing with the goals of better serving its homeless population and reducing the number of people living on the streets. It’s had some success: Several new Navigation Centers have opened, although two have also closed. The department helped launch the Health Streets Operation Center to collaborate with other city agencies — even though it’s largely police and Public Works employees who respond to calls. And it conducts and monitors the biannual Homeless Point-in-Time Count — although this year’s numbers leave a lot up to interpretation

Now it appears the Department may get a commission to better oversee its spending and policy decisions, and to provide transparency. This is a common practice for any city department with a budget of $10 million or more a year; the Police Department has a commission, as do the Fire Department, Planning Department, the airport, and so on. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has asked for $364.6 million for 2019-20 — an $80 million increase over the last fiscal year. 

“Instead of a formal streamlined approach to oversight and governance, the department has six different advisory committees — five that are currently operating — that have advisory functions relating to particular narrow piece of the overall system,” explains Supervisor Matt Haney, who drafted the ordinance for the commission. “The result is a patchwork, unwieldy, unpredictable, burdensome structure that fails to provide effective oversight.  No one, including the department, thinks that this is working.”

Commissions play a vital role in San Francisco’s democracy. Their public meetings are often the central place to lodge a complaint, voice an opinion, or get clarification on an issue without having to directly interface with busy department staff. The seats are seldom held by elected officials, but instead are appointed based on their areas of expertise. In this case, the mayor will appoint three of the seats, the Board of Supervisors three more, and the Controller has a pick of one. An ideal commission for this board, for example, would include at least one frontline worker, and one or more seats held by someone who has or is currently experiencing homelessness. 

While the hearing on Monday to approve the ordinance drew a crowd that was fairly unanimous in its support for more oversight, everyone who spoke did so carefully, not directly slamming the Department of Homelessness — which allocates money to many nonprofit organizations. 

Malea Chavez, Co-Chair of HESPA (Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association), spoke as a representative of more than 30 homeless service providers. 

“As providers, we’re constantly asked to be more accountable,” she said. “We should be able to expect the same of the Department. We’ve asked for policy updates — like progress on expanding the criteria for pregnant women to be eligible for life-saving services — for years, but have no idea where and when decisions will be made.” 

Others spoke to the lack of voice that many unhoused people have in the decisions made around their care.

“We need to be able to get answers from department heads. We need a venue where the department can hear directly from citizens, and that venue doesn’t currently exist now,” said Del Seymour, a formerly-homeless Tenderloin resident and longtime advocate for the unhoused. “Homeless people should have a commission like everyone else. Unhoused citizens shouldn’t be treated any less than anyone else. We just don’t have enough power.”

The only opposition to the commission came — somewhat surprisingly — from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Jay Cheng, who spoke on behalf of the Chamber, argued that more oversight would slow progress, citing the recent efforts made by the Board of Supervisors after the Airport Commission refused to handle the renaming of the Harvey Milk Terminal. 

It was a wildly hypocritical statement, as the Chamber — which led the opposition to last November’s Proposition C measure to tax businesses for additional homeless funding — used the excuse of the department’s lack of oversight as its key argument. 

“By the city’s own admission, there has been insufficient oversight, infrequent audits and no centralized system for tracking services provided by and the performance of the dozens of agencies receiving city money to address homelessness,” their No On C website states

“I do find it a bit ironic that the same folks who opposed Prop. C with the line ‘no accountability, no plan’ and put us in this situation are now saying that they don’t want accountability or additional oversight,” Haney shot back. “Maybe if we had this commission, Prop. C would have gotten that two-thirds [of the vote] because we wouldn’t have been so susceptible to the argument that the other side is now making.”

And the argument that commissions slow down departments’ abilities to make decisions and institute change isn’t — as Hospitality House’s Joe Wilson pointed out — always a bad thing. 

“There are those of us in S.F. who have some recollection of the ’60s and ’70s with the redevelopment of the Fillmore, which happened very quickly, and we know the results there,” he said. “We don’t want to act precipitously here. We want to make sure that if in fact we need to slow things down when necessary we do that. Sometimes it’s messy. But we can handle it.

“The alternative that people don’t get to feel like they have a voice, well that’s worse,” he added.

The ordinance to create the commission will be heard by the full Board of Supervisors on July 16. If it receives six votes of support — and it already has five locked down — it will be sent to the voters this November. If it then receives a majority vote of more than 50 percent, the Department of Homelessness will finally receive a commission, setting it on the same level as every other city department with a sizable budget. 

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