The most critical facts in the survey of Union Square panhandlers released last weekend are this: 82% are homeless and only 3% did not want housing. The obvious question is why the city’s homeless outreach team (known as “HOT”) has not gotten these longtime panhandlers into permanent housing through Care Not Cash or the Direct Access to Housing program. The answer, as I wrote on October 8 (“Why Mayor Lee’s “C” Grade on SF Homelessness is Correct”) is that the city’s outreach program fails to deal effectively with the most troubled of the homeless population. Its strategy is under funded and poorly conceived, and a new approach is long overdue.

Having complained for years that the city’s homeless outreach team prioritized tourist areas over residential districts like the Tenderloin, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of Union Square panhandlers are homeless. This shows that the city’s homeless outreach program is even less effective than I thought, having failed in high-profile Union Square and in much of the rest of the city.

An Empirical Basis for Change

The Union Square survey gives Mayor Lee an empirical basis for redesigning and repurposing the city’s homeless outreach program. Not that a formal survey was needed amidst widespread visible evidence of the program’s shortcomings; but anecdotes cannot drive policy, and a new approach may have required a factual basis for change.

I got ample positive feedback to my prior article urging the city to take a new direction on homeless outreach, leading me to conclude even prior to the Union Square survey results that there is significant dissatisfaction with the current approach. San Francisco must add additional homeless outreach staff and shift current resources from funding longterm, 100% city-funded stays in SRO’s to getting more people off the street now.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the millions of dollars spent by the Health Department on its “Stabilization” program never emerged from any empirical or community-driven process on how homeless outreach dollars should best be spent. Then Mayor Gavin Newsom was under pressure to get people off the streets, and putting them in SRO’s was the quickest way. The program suddenly mushroomed from 60 to 300 nightly beds without any meaningful Board of Supervisors analysis or oversight.

And because of this lack of oversight, the Stabilization program repeated the mistake of the city’s notorious “hotline hotel” program of the 1980’s by placing tenants in substandard housing while guaranteeing full rent payment. And it also failed to include any quantifiable measurement for success, which is why so many people from the streets live rent-free at city expense for six months and still do not “exit” into permanent housing.

If the Health Department had tried to start a 300-unit SRO stabilization program and needed Board approval, advocates would have come out to explain why removing so many SRO units from the permanent housing stock only adds to homelessness. But the program began with 60 rooms and expanded without any public hearing on where the program was going and whether it was the right approach.

A New Outreach Strategy

The city’s outreach priority should be getting homeless people off the streets and into services and housing. While that seems obvious, it requires changing current outreach practices.

First, in only rare cases should a homeless person be placed in an SRO stabilization room for longer than a week. That’s sufficient time for evaluations to be made and for connections to income support and permanent housing to occur. The Health Department believes otherwise, but the city does not have the resources to continue funding fulltime social service staff to spend months escorting stabilization participants to appointments.

Second, the money saved on shorter and/or eliminating stabilization stays should be redirected to a new stabilization center exclusively for those brought in by homeless outreach teams. This 24-hour facility would be a mini-MultiService Center for the street homeless, so they have an immediate exit stop from the streets.

Third, the city’s outreach priorities must focus as much on residential neighborhoods and commercial districts as on clearing freeway encampments. The city has a no tolerance policy for the latter, but a “we can’t do anything about it” attitude toward the former places where people live and work.

Fourth, San Francisco must decide that having people live on the street is not an acceptable option. The Union Square survey showed that the longterm homeless want housing, and that the percentage of those desiring to live under the stars is miniscule. We can no longer rationalize that the city is ignoring the most downtrodden out of concern for their needs.

I think the San Francisco public wants a new direction, and will support Mayor Lee in adopting a new homeless outreach strategy.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, San Francisco’s leading provider of permanent housing for homeless single adults.