By Matt Haney
That’s more people homeless in San Francisco in 2019 than in 2017. That’s a 30% increase in the number of San Franciscans sleeping on our streets, in parks, and in their cars in just two years.
The numbers are shocking. But for many, it reflects the everyday experience of city life. Families sleeping under overpasses, disabled elderly people living in tents after being evicted, people in mental health crisis struggling on our streets without care. We all know too well the extent of this great shame and tragedy.
Everyone agrees that we urgently need to advance our best data-driven approaches to get people off the streets. But when it comes to our homelessness service, there is one glaring missing piece: independent oversight and accountability.
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has less oversight, less accountability, and less transparency over its budget, strategy, and policies than almost any other major city department.
For the fire department, public health department, police department, library, recreation and parks department and twenty other city departments, decisions about policies, strategies and budgets are made with the public participation and oversight.
If a report showed a 30% increase in late library books, a 30% increase in house fires, a 30% increase in police use of force, an oversight commission would ask the tough questions, consult with experts, develop a plan, and make the necessary changes to get results.
But such a place does not exist when it comes to homelessness.
Most major departments have the support of an appointed oversight board of independent experts who investigate delays and roadblocks, facilitate a single strategy, assess budgets, and improve implementation.
In November, San Franciscans will have the opportunity to vote on a sensible homelessness oversight commission that will improve the city’s ability to get people off the streets. The ballot measure was drafted in partnership with HESPA, the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, which represents 30 homeless service providers, as well as supervisors Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton.
This commission will ensure accountability and transparency in budgeting and expenditures, conduct performance reviews and investigate delays in contracts and service delivery. It will create a central public place for feedback and discussion, and streamline the development and implementation of proven strategies.
The current lack of accountability and transparency within the Department is hurting the homeless, those living in supportive housing, and all San Franciscans who desperately want to see better results in getting people off the streets and into places of care. shelters, services and accommodation.
Earlier this year, there was widespread outrage that just 25 extra nighttime groundsheets were made available across the city to provide respite from heavy downpours. Had a commission been in place, independent commissioners and the public could have demanded a plan for adequate shelter and robust outreach during some of the strongest storms we have seen in years.
More than two years ago, the ministry announced a temporary shelter site for homeless pregnant women. Yet, years later, these women are still waiting for it to open. With a commission in place, an implementation schedule with mandatory updates could ensure pregnant women have access to emergency services.
It is widely accepted that lack of accountability has been a barrier to achieving the Ministry of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s strategic plan. Last year, when voters were considering Proposition C, Mayor Breed said, “The city needs to audit the $300 million plus we already spend on homelessness. San Franciscans deserve to be held accountable for the money they already pay.
With an oversight board in place, we can do just that. Stakeholders can be on the same page, working together and demanding the accountability we need.
The City is getting it right: launching the navigation center model that is being replicated nationally, approving a safe parking center for people living in their vehicles, and launching the ONE system to track and coordinate centrally the people using the services.
But when we leave decisions only to bureaucrats behind closed doors, we limit ourselves and leave the public in the dark. By using common sense and finally creating a homelessness watchdog, we can advance our best data-driven approaches to tackle the worsening homelessness crisis head-on.
Matt Haney is the District 6 Supervisor representing the Tenderloin, SOMA, Rincon Hill, Mission Bay and Treasure Island neighborhoods on the Board of Supervisors.