The number of homeless single adults receiving welfare in San Francisco fell to 333 in December 2006, its lowest total ever according to data released on March 5 by the Mayor’s Office and SF Stat. This compares to the 2175 on the rolls when Care not Cash began in May 2004. Where did the 2175 go?

Most obtained housing. The Human Services Agency (HSA) added 1091 units for homeless single adults since July 1, 2004, while the Health Department (DPH) added 408 units. As for the hundreds of inebriated homeless persons passed out on city sidewalks, the city announced a new “coordinated case management system” that should facilitate getting their placement in appropriate facilities. SF Stat shows there has been little progress in reducing homelessness among families, but this could dramatically change with following the February 1 start of the city’s new $3 million family rent-subsidy program. Homelessness remains a major problem in San Francisco, but the new data confirms that significant gains are being made.

Mayor Newsom’s SF Stat program announced on March 5 that San Francisco now has the most comprehensive coordinated case management system to track homeless persons of any major city. The new program links dozens of data bases to ensure that the homeless persons creating the greatest demand on city services are prioritized, and that the outcomes of their receiving of services can be assessed.

As anyone walking through the Tenderloin knows, the city has a problem with homeless inebriates sleeping or passed out on city sidewalks. SF Stat reveals a remarkable concentration in the Tenderloin and SOMA of people loitering and living on the streets, and these communities show the greatest number of homeless people given money by the city to return home through the city’s Project Homeward Bound.

Why the persistence of visible homelessness in the Central City despite single adults’ unprecedented access to housing? The homeless population has changed. It is no longer the victims of deindustrialization and Reagan social and economic policies as we saw in the 1980’s, nor the victims of statewide high unemployment as we saw until the mid to late 1990’s.

Today’s homeless single adults are far less job-ready, and have far more mental and physical health problems, than both these groups. SF Stat reveals that the doubling in city outreach staff in the current year’s budget is paying dividends in reaching this population: whereas 371 persons on the street received case management from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, 358 have received ongoing services in only the first six months of the current fiscal year.

The fact that the Mayor, CAO Ed Lee, key DPH staff and the heads of Planning, DBI, Housing, Economic Development, and Human Services sat in a public meeting on March 5 discussing data and outcomes is refreshing. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, homeless advocates continually expressed frustration at San Francisco’s spending tens of millions of dollars on addressing homelessness without detailing what this money was accomplishing..

In the Feinstein years, the city did not want to provide data on homeless spending because it would have confirmed that millions of taxpayer dollars were being spent funding one to three night stays in SRO’s that made homelessness much worse. Mayor Art Agnos began getting the data in order, but was defeated for re-election and replaced by Frank Jordan, whose four homeless coordinators in as many years reflected a homeless program in disarray.

Under Mayor Willie Brown, city officials had difficulty getting data from some non-profit contractors, especially shelter providers, on what their program was actually accomplishing to reduce homelessness. It seemed quite odd that the city agency paying these contractors could not get the necessary information to assess the program’s effectiveness, but it seemed that a culture of unaccountability had been established that would be unacceptable in programs that did not serve the poor.

During his 2003 mayoral campaign, Gavin Newsom borrowed an idea from David Osborne’s “Reinventing Government” playbook and from the former mayor of Baltimore in promoting a “SF Stat” program. The idea was to keep detailed records of the city’s progress in a wide range of areas, so as to boost public accountability.

The model for SF Stat was a Baltimore program that tracked the city’s success at closing down vacant lots that had become illegal dumping grounds. Many were concerned that Newsom’s admiration for the program would lead him to extend it to government programs whose success cannot be statistically quantified.

For example, how does one evaluate the quality of mental health or other supportive services? Numbers served could reflect a fast-food approach to service delivery, while a focus on “successful outcomes” in such areas as employment or substance abuse treatment could lead non-profits to avoid servicing those most likely to fail.

It appeared clear from the March 5 SF Stat meeting that the city sees the data collection as facilitating services to the most chronic of homeless persons. The new coordinated case management system will make it easier for outreach workers to identify frequent users of the city’s health system, and to collect all of the evidence needed to support the appointment of a conservator to take care of the homeless person’s needs.

Maria Martinez of DPH told the group that in August 2004, an inebriate was taken to hospitals 47 times in that month alone! While alcoholism is not grounds for conservatorship---an astonishing fact that DPE reported yesterday---had the new Coordinated Case Management System been in place, the individual would have obtained placement in a longterm care facility much earlier.

The most positive number in the March 5 SF Stat data is the reduction of single adults on welfare (CAAP clients) from 2175 in May 2004 to 333 in December 2006.

As much as many hoped to bring this number to 0, it appears from the monthly statistics over the past year that there will always be about 300 homeless CAAP clients. The reason is that new people apply for CAAP every day, and are added to the rolls prior to getting housing. HSA Director Trent Rhorer noted that the 300 total represents many different people from month to month, and, unless new applications were to cease, likely represents as low a total as can feasibly be achieved.

The other encouraging number, though certainly no longer “news,” is the steady increase in San Francisco’s housing units for homeless single adults. The city now has 2804 such units, 453 through DPH, 1741 through HSA, and another 610 units housing non-CAAP homeless clients who are seniors or disabled.

SF Stat reveals less progress on housing homeless families, with the lack of affordable one, two or three bedroom apartments the chief obstacle. With the federal government abandoning public housing, pressure has increased on localities to come up with creative housing solutions. On February 1, San Francisco launched a $3 million family rent subsidy program that could double the number of homeless families housed in the next year. SF Stat will update its progress.

With the Bush Administration seemingly doing everything in its power to increase homelessness in America, it is heartening to see San Francisco making some progress. And SF Stat provides the facts necessary to retain public support for continuing to wage the fight against homelessness with increased local funds.

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