Michael Francis packs up his belongings as Department of Public Works employees sweep a homeless encampment along Division Street in San Francisco on March 1. (Jessica Christian/ S.F. Examiner)

Homelessness and the way forward

Last month’s media blitz about San Francisco’s homeless problem presents a great opportunity to examine a problem our city desperately needs to solve. I write today as a funder, one charged with overseeing the Saint Francis Foundation’s grant-making process that supports this type of work.

In our view, as with the many issues we are working with in the Tenderloin, solutions to the homeless issue need to be in scale with scope and size of the problem. As a starting point, they must be based on the assumption that we have a moral obligation to help people in need.

At the same time, we must be guided by practicality. That means framing the issue in terms of the cost to the overall community’s health and well-being. It also means working together much more effectively to implement a comprehensive plan. Money can go a long way to solving the problem, but we have to look at overall costs and related investments differently than we have in the past.

A key challenge is deciding which ideas to embrace, and how to galvanize and reorganize resources to successfully execute these initiatives. Based on our work in the Tenderloin through the Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership, we hope the planning will embrace collaboration and partnership and steer clear of the habitual siloed efforts of the past.

In our experience, the best chance for real progress is coordinating and integrating all of these individually effective efforts. Through TLHIP, more than 150 government agencies, nonprofits and business organizations are working diligently to address the complex social problems in the Tenderloin.

The reopening of Boeddeker Park in December 2014 is a case study in success when cooperation and coordination happen. Through Tenderloin HIP, the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the San Francisco Police Department all came together to provide adequate programming and security for the park. Today, Boeddeker is thriving as a result after a nine-year closure.

That different organizations don’t coordinate on complex social problems is no surprise. It’s completely understandable. Our success in the Tenderloin, which is based on the collective impact model used by urban communities across the U.S., can be a blueprint for how we address our homelessness problem.

In fact, the urgent need for collaboration on the homeless issue is critical to the Tenderloin, where the problem has gotten worse. According to data from The City, in 2013, 47 percent of the homeless population was in the Tenderloin. Today, it is 57 percent.

By one estimate, it would take an investment of about $20,000 per homeless person per year to provide supportive housing. That may sound like a lot, but the actual cost today for a homeless person to be on the streets in the Bay Area is $80,000 when you factor in emergency hospital care, crime, additional security and public works costs, among others.

A good portion of the more than $100 million in charity care that Saint Francis Memorial Hospital has delivered over the past 10 years has been to homeless people treated in our emergency room. Much of the human suffering and unnecessary expense could have been avoided if the homeless, and those at risk of homelessness, had the support they need.

To be certain, the solutions are more than just putting a roof over someone’s head. We need to provide substance abuse and mental health services; alleviate food insecurity; coordinate purposeful work and other engagement opportunities during the day. All these initiatives will help the homeless re-integrate themselves into society and reduce a huge financial and social burden on the community

We all know there is no quick fix. The solutions require an investment of real money and real political will. Most importantly, everyone is going to have to give up something. In reality, we already have great people and great teams committed to the cause. We just need more and better coordination of public and private resources.

Kevin Causey is president of Saint Francis Foundation and is head of Tenderloin HIP. For more information, visit www.saintfrancisfoundation.org.

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