The City needs a Homelessness Oversight Commission to provide accountability, transparency

By Matt Haney


That’s how many more people are unhoused in San Francisco in 2019 than in 2017. That’s a 30 percent increase in San Franciscans sleeping on our streets, in parks, and in their cars from just two years ago.

The numbers are shocking. But for many, it reflects the daily experience of living in the city. Families sleeping under overpasses, disabled seniors living in tents after being evicted, people in mental health crises struggling on our streets without care. We all know the extent of this great shame and tragedy all too well.

Everyone agrees that we need to urgently advance our best, data-driven approaches to get people off the streets. But when it comes to our homelessness department, there is one glaring missing piece: independent oversight and accountability.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has less oversight, less accountability, and less transparency over its budget, strategy, and policies than nearly every other large city department.

For the Fire Department, Department of Public Health, Police Department, Library, Recreation and Park Department, and twenty other city departments, decisions about policies, strategies, and budgets are made with the involvement and oversight of the public.

If a report revealed a 30 percent increase in late library books, a 30 percent increase in home fires, a 30 percent increase in police use of force — an Oversight Commission would ask the tough questions, consult the experts, come up with a plan, and make the changes necessary to get results.

But no such venue exists when it comes to homelessness.

Most major departments benefit from the support of an appointed oversight commission, with independent experts who investigate delays and barriers, facilitate a single strategy, assess budgets, and improve implementation.

This November, San Franciscans will have the opportunity to vote on a common sense Homelessness Oversight Commission that will improve the City’s ability to get people off the streets. The ballot measure was drafted in partnership with HESPA, the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, which represents 30 homeless service providers, along with Supervisors Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, and Shamann Walton.

This commission will provide accountability and transparency in budgeting and spending, conduct performance reviews, and investigate delays in contracting and service delivery. It will create a central public venue for input and discussion, and streamline the development and implementation of proven strategies.

The current lack of accountability and transparency in the Department hurts people experiencing homelessness, hurts people living in supportive housing, and hurts all San Franciscans who desperately want to see better results in getting people off the street and into shelter, services, and housing.

Earlier this year, there was widespread outrage that only 25 additional overnight floor mats were made available citywide to provide respite from heavy rainstorms. Had a commission been in place, independent commissioners and the public could have demanded a plan for adequate shelter and robust outreach during some of the heaviest storms we’ve seen in years.

Over two years ago, the department announced a temporary housing site for homeless pregnant mothers. Yet years later, these women are still waiting for it to open. With a commission in place, an implementation timeline with mandated updates could ensure that pregnant mothers have access to emergency services.

There is widespread agreement that the lack of accountability has been a barrier to meeting the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Strategic Plan. Last year, when voters were considering Prop C, Mayor Breed said, “The City needs to audit the $300+ million we are already spending on homelessness. San Franciscans deserve accountability for the money they are already paying.”

With an oversight commission in place, we can do just that. Stakeholders can get on the same page, work together, and demand the accountability we need.

The City is getting some things right: Pioneering the Navigation Center model that is being replicated nationally, approving a safe parking center for people living in their vehicles, and launching the ONE system to centrally track and coordinate people utilizing services.

But when we leave decisions solely to bureaucrats behind closed doors, we’re limiting ourselves, and leaving the public in the dark. By doing the common sense thing and finally creating a Homelessness Oversight Commission, we can advance our best, data driven approaches to tackle the worsening homelessness crisis head on.

Matt Haney is the District 6 Supervisor representing the Tenderloin, SOMA, Rincon Hill, Mission Bay and Treasure Island neighborhoods on the Board of Supervisors.

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