2012: Where have the homeless gone?

The city, it turns out, has absolutely no idea

By Rachel Brahinsky

To read the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks back, you’d think Mayor Gavin Newsom‘s homeless policies have just about solved the problems of the city’s street people. Thanks to new services and housing, Newsom’s latest count showed the city hosting nearly 3,000 fewer homeless than in 2002.
Newsom credited the shift to his programs, including Care Not Cash, and the administration’s “housing first” policy. It’s true that about 700 homeless people have been given housing through Care Not Cash, which is unquestionably a good thing. But since it began, more than 1,000 others have disappeared from its welfare rolls – and the Department of Human Services, which administers the program, has no idea where they’ve gone.
At least that’s what was indicated in DHS‘s response to a recent Bay Guardian public records request, which sought evidence that the city has been tracking or attempting to trace what’s happened to former homeless welfare clients. Amazingly, according to DHS, the city has done no research on where those people are and has no record of how many Care Not Cash clients have had their welfare checks cut in return for a stay in a temporary shelter, which is what happens to many in the program before they can access housing.
The city even seems to be having a hard time keeping tabs on its housed clients. DHS said there’s no paper trail showing whether housed Care Not Cash clients are staying in their new homes – or whether any of them have once again slipped through the cracks to become homeless.
Why does it matter? We warned two years ago (see “Shelter Shuffle,” 4/2/03) the only way Newsom could afford to pay for the services he promised under Care Not Cash would be if some people lost out on services. And that seems to be happening. In the Newsom era of homeless policy, some are harmed so that others can be helped: in order to fund those 700 units of housing and other new services the mayor has boasted about, hundreds of clients had to just disappear, relieving the city of the financial burden of caring for them.
The lack of data is convenient for Newsom. Without it, he can simply focus his public relations message on the positive news of those he has helped. But without knowing what’s happened to the rest, it’s impossible to honestly assess the impact of his programs.
Newsom’s spokesperson, Peter Ragone, referred us to DHS director Trent Rhorer for comment. Rhorer didn’t return several messages left on his cell phone over the course of a week and a half.
But on a recent edition of KQED-FM radio show Forum, DHS housing and homeless programs director Dariush Kayhan said he plans to hire a consultant to assess the fate of future clients. A DHS report to the city’s 10-year-plan council on homelessness indicated the same.
That’s good news for the homeless who are still here, although it’s certainly too late for those who have vanished so far.
Juan Prada of the Coalition on Homelessness suggested that people may have left the city because Newsom’s policies have made it harder for many homeless folks to survive here. Prada pointed to the fact that the city has quietly stepped up enforcement of certain quality-of-life crimes, particularly camping in the parks. In 2003, 436 citations were issued for that misdeed; last year the city issued almost three times as many – a total of 1,114 citations.
Plus, under Care Not Cash, homeless people are charged for food and heat during shelter stays, Prada said. “We’re hearing it’s too much of a hassle for $59. Some people have left the city maybe, though we have seen increasing encampments in the outer neighborhoods…. The 700 people housed: that’s great. For the other ones, we don’t know where they’ve gone. What kind of homeless policy is that?”

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