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San Francisco’s New Chief of Homelessness on Methods to Spend $1 Billion and Get Folks Housed Shortly

It’s exciting for a number of reasons. One of them is that homelessness is such an equity factor. We know that nearly 40% of the homeless are African American. And the city has a history where the Afro-American population was not doing well, a terrible history. It includes making sure that people displaced in San Francisco actually have a home to go to.

It is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can better serve our residents across the city. So we’re not just thinking about having supportive housing in this area, we’re thinking about how to do it across the city so that it has a geographic part of it.

It’s just very exciting for me to join the department at this time when we have so many resources. We’re also building up the department so we can really address people’s needs, get our contracts out faster, and so on.

A lot happens at once. There is a confluence of federal, state and local resources that are finally coming together in a meaningful way and that will really help us make a much greater contribution on this issue than we have been able to in the past.

Department priorities

There is a lot to be done. What are your priorities for the department?

We have a really good framework in this department. We have really good interventions, be it problem solving and prevention or housing people and all the other things we do.
But I think we still have a lot of gaps even within those buckets. Are you trying to figure out what it is and how we can make a better system that people can step into? Can we make things faster?

We can look at certain populations and see if we can do a better job. Again, justice is a big thing, and it’s a big thing we need to address because we have such injustice in the city.

One of the great things about this department is that it’s new. It was founded in 2016 by bringing together employees from different departments. It is not adequately equipped and we are in the process of really building up our capacities and our staff.

This is important because with all that money we have to be able to be the engine that brings it out to ultimately accommodate people. And that’s exactly what challenges us because we’re in build mode. So doing that as quickly as possible is very important and that is very important to us.

Staffing for the distribution of Proposition C funds

With all this new money – which will distribute around 1 billion US dollars in Prop. C funds over the next few years, new state and federal funds – it all comes together. But with no way of getting the money out the door, it’s just in the bank. You have added two new positions to your management team: Noelle Simmons, the former Deputy Director of at [San Francisco] Human Services Agency, and Cynthia Nagendra, the former managing director of the [UCSF] Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative. Can you tell me something else about what else is going on with staffing and how the department is trying to structure itself to really be set up to get the money out the door quickly?

Really, it is being discontinued. Our team is working quickly and eagerly to fill all of these positions we have. We have new positions in our budget. Right now I think we have around 130 employees and we have around 80 new jobs that we are going to hire, which is a ton considering the size of the department. And we’ll do that as soon as possible.

At this point, department spokeswoman Emily Cohen added that the department’s budget is growing by 62%.

Emily Cohen: In terms of operationalizing, tracking, accountability, making sure we have due diligence and public procedures to get this on the door, we want to have the highest level of integrity in everything we do. It turns out that this takes capacity.

Shireen McSpadden: On the other hand, we want to be able to communicate our success. We want to be able to show that we move the needle. We hear a lot of frustration in the community about what is not being done. We want to be able to show what we do and how many people are really housed. So that’s what we’re going to work on. Of course we track information and we have data, but we want to continuously improve this process. We also want to think about how we communicate with the public.

Bridging the equity gap

You spoke earlier about the equity gap. I’m just wondering, could you give me an example of some things that might have gaps or interruptions that you want to bridge?

We are a little challenged by our process to reach certain populations. And I’ll give you an example because I came from the Department of Disability and Aging. One example is the elderly. I’ve known older people who don’t rank high on priority, but they are clearly 80 and homeless. So this is just one example of how I think we need to tweak our system a bit to see how we can change that.

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