Newsom’s Grand Brag on Homelessness As Mayor Of SF

Newsom’s Grand Brag on Homelessness As Mayor Of SF

San Francisco Mayor-elect Gavin Newsom intends to “aggressively” make homelessness his administration’s No. 1 priority, and his first moves will include creating a 10-year plan for ending chronic homelessness and going after “tens of millions” of new dollars in federal funding.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Newsom said he also plans to create within six months about 550 units of new “supportive housing” for troubled homeless people and to make city agencies collect numbers on exactly how many homeless are getting which services, so he can better determine what the most pressing needs are.

“I recognize that I’m setting myself up. I’m not naïve to that,” Newsom said in the Friday interview. “I don’t want to over-promise, but I also don’t want to under-deliver. I want to hit the ground running.”

By creating a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, he said, the city will be able to compete for special funding that the federal government intends to make available in the coming year to cities with such plans. This will be particularly crucial considering that the city and state both face severe budget shortfalls.

The centerpiece of any plan, he said, will be creating more supportive housing, which gives the homeless a room to live in with counseling services in the same building to address the drug, alcohol or mental health problems that often put them on the street.

Newsom said the main target population for this housing will be the chronically homeless, or “hard core” — the 3,000 to 5,000 people who have such severe troubles that they sleep outside most of the time. They are the worst off of the city’s homeless population, estimated to be between 8,600 and 15,000. San Francisco’s high proportion of hard core homeless people — about 40 percent — has given the city its reputation for having the worst homelessness problem in the United States.

“Clearly, we have to be creative with state dollars, federal dollars and philanthropic dollars, and so for me that 10-year-plan is critical,” Newsom said.

President Bush’s point man on homelessness, Philip Mangano, told The Chronicle this month that the president intends to spend $200 million nationally next year on initiatives to end homelessness. He said he was prepared to work with whoever was elected mayor here to help him apply for that money. A 10-year plan is crucial for that application, said Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Newsom already has a head start for creating that plan. In the past couple of years he met with Mangano to discuss strategy and visited Chicago and New York to study their 10-year models.

What the mayor-elect learned in that time is that the key to assembling a plan for ending homelessness is collecting accurate data on what services are most needed, and bringing as many “stakeholders” to the planning process, Newsom said — echoing advice Mangano has given to 70 other cities that formed their own 10-year plans in the past year.

Cassandra Benjamin, who helps lead a coalition of philanthropists called the Bay Area Foundation Advisory Group to End Homelessness, said her group is eager to help San Francisco draft a plan and to raise money.

“We believe chronic homelessness can be ended, and we want to do everything we can to make that happen in San Francisco,” she said. “All they have to do is call.”

Newsom said he would call.

The city already has 2,500 units of supportive housing, and among those, the 400-bed Direct Access to Housing program is considered a national model of excellence.

However, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, in Washington, D.C., estimates it could take $450 million to build enough additional supportive housing to handle the minimum 3,000 hard-core homeless in San Francisco. About $150 million of that would probably have to come from the city, the organization said, with federal, state and possibly private funding making up the rest.

Newsom said the approximately 550 new supportive housing units he wants will be created under a master lease program, in which the city contracts for rooms in existing, rehabilitated buildings.

He said one way the city could fund this would be by implementing the Board of Supervisors’ amended version of his stalled “Care Not Cash” initiative; the amended version was approved this summer and allows cutting welfare payments to homeless people if there is housing available to them.

“Care Not Cash,” which was approved by voters last year but shelved by court order, would have cut General Assistance grants of up to $410 a month if there were shelter beds available. The debate sparked by the measure propelled Newsom to the forefront of the city’s political struggles over homelessness, and helped fuel his campaign for mayor.

“We will see savings as we move away from a cash-based system,” he said.

Newsom said he probably won’t revive the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness, but will instead “create an interdepartmental work group” involving key players from all city departments that serve the homeless. He also wants to create a citywide brainstorming process.

“I want to get service providers, community groups and advocates together to plan,” he said. “There may be initial resistance, I recognize that. But get everyone around the table, dispense with the past in terms of reliving it, focus on the future.

“Through force of will by the mayor, and constant and never-ending focus on the issue, I think we’ll start making some progress.”

Something sure to draw fire is Newsom’s plan to expand the city’s growing system of tracking and identifying homeless people who use its emergency services.

“One of my greatest frustrations is the lack of coordination and the lack of accountability on the homeless service-delivery system,” Newsom said. Because of this, San Francisco doesn’t even have an accurate count of how many homeless people are on its streets.

The city just completed installing a system logging in everyone who stays in its 1,350 emergency shelter beds, and Newsom wants to expand that tracking to agencies that provide other services, such as substance abuse and mental health treatment. Critics call this an invasion of privacy because it involves taking people’s fingerprints, but Newsom pointed out that new federal rules say the fingerprinting has to be done for a city to qualify for basic governmental funding.

In four years, he said, he will welcome being judged by how he approached the homelessness crisis. In the meantime, it will be his top priority because “it’s a national disgrace.”

“I am committed to (trying to solve) it,” he said. “And there is a difference between interest and commitment. I have commitment.”

Source: SFGATE