As City Changes Course on Homelessness, Nonprofit Leader Calls for Service-First Approach


Jennifer Friedenbach. Photo by Laura Wenus // Public Press.

San Francisco officials are planning to shift their approach to homelessness after reviewing data that show the current strategy – a complaint-driven system – isn’t actually getting people off the streets. The data show that in 2019, 95%of people who went through a shelter or navigation center returned to the street after their stay. That’s up from 58 percent the year before.

At a recent meeting of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that beginning in mid-March, the Healthy Streets Operation Center would stop relying on complaint calls to the city’s 311 hotline. Instead, they’ll move to an approach that combines multiple sources of data to identify and prioritize places with large encampments or high concentrations of people living unsheltered.

“We looked at what we did in 2018. And we looked at what we did in 2019. And we saw really clearly, what we’re doing right now doesn’t work,” Kositsky said at the meeting. “No one was trying to hurt anybody. We tried something, it didn’t work. It eroded trust on the streets, all the data shows that. And now we’re standing up and saying, okay, been there, done that, now we’re going to go back to what we know works.”

He also said that the department would be announcing a manager for Healthy Streets, something the coordinating board had been asking about. On March 5, the San Francisco Examiner revealed that Kositsky himself would be stepping down from his position as the head of homelessness depaertment to become that very manager.

Emily Cohen, the mayor’s policy advisor for homelessness, pointed out that the Healthy Strrets initiative alone isn’t designed to solve the root causes of homelessness.

“We have lots of work that we’re doing on the underlying causes of so many of the challenges. But the initiative here to that we’re talking about here today is focused on street conditions,” Cohen told the board.

For another perspective on the city’s new approach, “Civic” spoke with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. Friedenbach called for a new approach based on connecting homeless people with services rather than primarily reacting to calls from those who have housing about homeless people.

“Why are we serving homelessness through housed people — why aren’t we serving homeless people?” Friedenbach asked. “If our whole orientation switches away from, ‘we want to decrease the number of tents’ to ‘we want to help homeless people move into housing and get off the streets completely,’ that’s going to satisfy all the neighborhood in a real way.”

Listen to the full interview and excerpts from the meeting below.

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A segment from our radio show, “Civic.” Listen daily at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on 102.5 FM in San Francisco.