Multiple Challenges Confront New Leaders at SF Homelessness Department

Shireen McSpadden, Noelle Simmons, and Cynthia Nagendra, new leaders of San Francisco's homelessness agency.

Courtesy City of San Francisco and UCSF

Shireen McSpadden, left, is slated to take office May 1 as San Francisco’s new director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Also named to the new leadership team are Noelle Simmons, middle, and Cynthia Nagendra, right.

The selection of Shireen McSpadden to lead the city’s homelessness department is being greeted optimistically by officials who have dealt extensively with San Francisco’s chronic inability to find shelter for all its residents.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Joe Wilson, a prominent advocate for homeless people, said they were encouraged by the choice of McSpadden, who is set to take over May 1 — becoming the fourth person to hold the role in 14 months.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing was founded in 2016 by former Mayor Ed Lee, who consolidated programs that had been scattered throughout different departments and brought them all under one roof with the promise of ending homelessness for 8,000 San Franciscans in four years.

“All of the ingredients for success on ending homelessness for thousands of our fellow San Franciscans are already here, but it will require cooperation like never before,” Lee said in a press release at the time.

The department’s ambitious mission is one few cities have achieved. McSpadden’s appointment comes after years of struggle for the department, which has missed self-imposed deadlines to address homelessness, suffered from staff shortages and lost the trust of its many community partners.

Neither McSpadden nor the homelessness department responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Peskin, who has worked closely with the department to purchase two supportive housing buildings and open a navigation center in his district over the past year, said he is “pleased and optimistic” about McSpadden’s appointment.

“She’s no nonsense and she’s not political,” he said in an interview. “I believe she’s a really good administrator. My interactions with her have always been somewhere between very good and excellent.”

Now, McSpadden, the former executive director of the city’s Department of Disability and Aging Services, will be in charge of turning the homelessness department around. Assisting her will be Noelle Simmons, formerly a deputy director at the Human Services Agency, and Cynthia Nagendra, the founding executive director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco. Simmons will be chief deputy. Nagendra will lead all long-term planning efforts.

Homeless service providers, many of whom have slammed the department’s failures to collaborate over the past year, are hopeful about the changes.

“We are encouraged by the new leadership,” said Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House and co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association. “The wealth of both executive experience and on-the-ground community experience, working with community-based organizations and providers around the city, those are both pluses.”

But the path in front of McSpadden and her team is a difficult one. While the department has seen some success, it has much work ahead.

In its short tenure, the department has created hundreds of shelter beds for homeless people, launched the ONE System to track people as they navigate services, and supported the acquisition and renovation of new permanent supportive housing units.

However, despite an increase in budget to $567 million from $220 million since its creation five years ago, “the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has not yet changed the trajectory of the increase in the homeless population,” according to a blistering 2020 audit of the department conducted by the Budget and Legislative Analyst.

Lost trust with the community

In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the department held $182.9 million in contracts with homeless service providers. But trust between the city and those on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis has been eroded by a lack of transparency, and the department’s reluctance to listen to concerns raised by those working directly with people in need.

“I want collaboration with every community that the Department of Homelessness is involved in,” said Peskin, when asked what the department should prioritize. “I’m talking about their clients, the individuals who need housing, the neighbors who surround permanent supportive housing sites, members of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor’s office. This is a transcendent issue.”

Wilson agrees. “The major challenge here is rebuilding trust with providers,” he said. “It’s been severely damaged over the past several years, and there is significant work to be done there to convince providers that they are partners in this effort to eliminate homelessness. That has to be first on the list.”

Chronic understaffing

The department has also suffered from severe understaffing and a high turnover of directors. After the department’s first director, Jeff Kositsky, stepped down — to take a job with lower pay and title — it took 14 months to find a permanent replacement.

This trend continues down the ranks. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, 36 of 139 positions were vacant, accounting for 26% of the entire department’s staff.

“With ongoing staffing shortages, the Department cannot perform to its maximum capacity,” said the 2020 Budget and Legislative Analyst audit.

Since then, the department has made some progress. As of mid-April, vacant positions have been reduced to 20 out of 145, or 14% of the department’s staff.

Missed goals

In October 2017, the department established eight ambitious goals, from housing every family with a child to creating a comprehensive plan to address youth homelessness to reducing chronic homelessness by 50%.

The August 2020 audit reported that most goals had not been reached, and that many have been delayed.

For example, the department said it would end family homelessness by December 2021 but has pushed that goal to December 2022. While the department said it had ended “large, long-term encampments” by its stated goal of July 2019, these types of encampments have since re-emerged, according to the audit.

Finally, a goal to implement a consistent set of performance metrics for community partners, set for December 2019, has been pushed to June 2021.

Homeless housing vacancies

Meeting its goals requires the department to place people living on the streets in housing of some kind, yet vacancies in the city’s homeless housing stock skyrocketed to 10%. In January, 766 units of permanent supportive housing sat vacant, even as 1,220 people approved for housing remained homeless.

“The very agency charged with housing people in our city has allowed a situation where hundreds of units have remained vacant for months on end while people continue to languish on the streets,” Sara Shortt, director of public policy and community outreach at the Community Housing Partnership, a permanent supportive housing provider, said in an email to Public Press in February.

She noted that “If at the end of the day the department can’t get people actually moved into available units, well then maybe they need to face disciplinary action — the same way you or I would if we didn’t perform our basic job duties.”

Recently, the housing of the more than 2,000 people living in shelter-in-place hotels was removed from the department’s purview and handed off to the city’s COVID Command Center. While the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s media spokesperson Deborah Bouck originally called the home of this new effort the Office of Housing Opportunities in an email to the Public Press, COVID Command Center spokesperson Francis Zamora later described the group handling that effort as a “unit,” and not an official office.

Looking ahead

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing faces many of the same crises it did when launched five years ago. While the homeless population has surged, the city has begun to adapt to ideas that were once controversial.

Peskin noted that he tried three times to land a navigation center in the district he represents in the city’s northeastern corner. It took years, but “fourth time was the charm.”

“People think that the second the department was created the world will change,” he said. “But you have to realize that departments have their own histories, change does not happen overnight. It takes a long time to reach some level of governmental maturity.”

“Having said that,” he added, “it’s been half a decade.”