Jeff Kositsky, director of the city Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) stepped down into the much lower position of running the embattled Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC), after admitting the operation was a complete failure.
HSOC started in January 2018 following a surge of encampments in the Bayview, Mission and South of Market. It started as a mixed bag. Part Encampment resolution, where the homeless department would identify a large encampment, give campers two weeks’ notice and work with them until appropriate accommodations were found, and part sweep machine the adventure had obvious mixed results. HSOC started becoming a centralized unit, led by the San Francisco Police Department, over the course of that first year. By the end of 2018, the resolutions were gone, and it was primarily a response to complaints via 311. It moved from being centered on reducing encampments by moving folks inside to a complaint driven response. However, the entire philosophy from the beginning was about reducing tents. In the 2019 human beings were not factored in at all, as we scoured emails and documents from HSOC.
“It is healthy for bureaucracies to acknowledge when they have tried something and it didn’t work,” Kositsky said during the most recent quarterly Local Homeless Coordinating Board meeting where data from HSOC was presented. The data was beyond dismal. Before the police took over the response, there was a 65% acceptance into services, whereas after only 2% acceptance of services by cops. Not only that, but the overarching police response also decreased acceptance into services by outreach workers down to 17%.
It is important to deconstruct these numbers a bit. “Acceptance into services” can be a very misleading term. Often the services offered – such as those by police are nonexistent, limited or inappropriate. For example, they started setting aside seven-day navigation center beds for police. Many unhoused people would happily move into navigation center beds for long stays, but the churn of moving from streets to shelter and back to the streets often leaves people on the streets in worse shape – they lost their safe space to sleep, contact with encampment mates or survival gear. Having the rug pulled out from under you can be damaging. Also, when someone with a gun in their holster tells you to go somewhere, it doesn’t really engender a positive attitude. For the outreach workers, it is all about what they have to offer. Rarely do folks have an actual housing unit, which is what they really need and want. More frequently it is a shelter bed, either in a traditional shelter or a navigation center. For many, these beds are welcome respite, but for many others, congregate living is not possible for them due to a variety of reasons including post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges. Often it is the system that is resistant not the person – lacking capacity to offer what is truly needed. When outreach is combined with police operations, relationships between outreach workers and homeless people disintegrate. Nevertheless a downward turn in moving unhoused individuals off the streets, during a time of increasing resources is not a good sign.
According to Kositsky borrowing from a line in “Lord of the Rings” as quoted in the SF Examiner on March 2, “Essentially, we tried to spread not enough butter over too much bread, and running around responding to 311 calls had a number of impacts. In addition to the 311 calls increasing slightly and the problem not getting better, we were really harming people experiencing homelessness, not intentionally,” he said. “Our outcomes were not good.”
Not only were complaints up, but worse, before the police took over HSOC, 58% of encampment residents reached by the city entered permanent housing, whereas after only 5% went into housing. If you look at the big picture, with all the money spent on this operation, only 5% of the street residents they come into contact with are transitioning into housing, that really is a horrendous track record.
The problem circles in part back to Kositsky. In a June 15, 2018 memo to then-Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru (recently arrested by FBI), he stated “Our goal is no tents or structures in the city … Public Works and SFPD can clear areas rapidly when there is not a designated resolution in progress.” This is an instruction to lead with criminalization and to conduct sweeps except in rare exceptions when there are no resolutions going on.
The problem is pretty clear: when your work to address homelessness is centered on getting rid of tents, you are left with people who are unsheltered and alone. That means the homeless people you are supposed to be helping are in worse shape than when you started.
In another HSOC communication obtained through a Sunshine Act request, there was no mention of any social service agency or homeless outreach worker at all:
Email from Peter Lau, DPW, on HSOC Process to DPW workers (Aug 8, 2018). Obtained through Sunshine Act Request
Part of the HSOC process is to encourage people to complain via 311, and they could even download an app for their phone that showed them the status of the complaint. Pictures would go up of before and after, and notes would be taken as to the status. Sometimes SFPD would even brag of taking away people’s property such as in this social media post that clearly shows SFPD’s disposal of homeless people’s property.
One of the many complaints of the current HSOC operations is the lack of transparency and community engagement. According to federal guidelines, best practices include engagement and collaboration with the community. HSOC initially had a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board present at their meetings, and once when that board member was sick, they had another member attend who also happened to be a staff person at the Coalition on Homelesness. They banned outsider attendance from then on.
At this last quarterly presentation at the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, Emily Cohen from the Mayor’s Office, and Jeff Kositsky announced that the city would shift its focus away from using police and toward social workers and paramedics. Complaining about the leaderless nature of HSOC (it is currently led by a staff member from the city’s Department of Emergency Management), just two days later, the announcement came that Kositsky would be taking the lead. Part of the presentation covered how the number of tents has increased throughout 2019.
The other two changes that have been outlined include moving away from a complaint-driven system and including community oversight. Moving away from a 311 complaint response to what is being called a “slow-roll” approach would entail the establishment of zones. Using outreach, 311 complaints to identify homeless “hot spots” they will prioritize neighborhoods with the highest concentration of homeless people. So still using 311 data, but not alone. They also will open up HSOC to have community seats for various representatives, likely hand-picked by the new HSOC director.
Kositsky took a big pay cut and a demotion, but swears it is entirely voluntary and this is where he wants to serve, going so far as to say it was his idea. The changes look good to the Coalition on Homelessness, however we would rather see that operation dismantled. The construct is all wrong, and designed around political outcomes such as decreasing tents and not centered on homeless people themselves. We welcome the change, but would like to see the police removed and we are not confident they will stop responding to complaints. The change away from a police response is just too big and too ingrained in our systems. If we truly move to a health-oriented response to homelessness instead of a criminal justice one, that will take movement, not just a change in leadership. Movement is exactly what we are building now.