Leading San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is a hard job — it was tough in normal times, and it is a feat of perseverance and personal sacrifice during a pandemic. Homeless service providers know this, because our job is to make the director’s job a little harder, advocating fiercely for the needs of unhoused people and our staff on the front lines.
Times are tough. It is troubling to experience two leadership transitions in a department that is deep in challenges. It is troubling to see those challenges impact people across the life cycle — from the new mom and infant who do not meet the criteria for shelter, to the 87-year-old woman who does not qualify for housing. It is troubling to learn about major changes in leadership and policy from reporters and press releases; it speaks to a pattern of business as usual where decisions roll downhill, already made without input from the people who must carry them out, or worse, live with them.
We cannot afford to deepen the groove of business as usual as we pick our heads up from the immediate crisis. We have unprecedented possibilities nearly upon us: a convergence of bond money, budget set-asides, and emergency relief funds from the feds and the state; empty hotel and small-site properties for lease or sale in a sluggish market; and a fully reimbursable investment in shelter-in-place hotels for more than 2,000 unhoused people through the end of September.
This (among other things) is the kind of federal support we have been saying for years that we cannot end homelessness without. Combined with local initiatives, there is real potential to transform our homeless response system: to eliminate warehouse-style shelter as we know it, to replace it with COVID-safe crisis housing — perhaps a version of the SIP hotels — and to create the housing we need for shelter to be a truly temporary solution and not a revolving door back to the streets.
But there is always the risk that the decisions have already been made. There is a risk that the short-term plan is to repopulate congregate shelters, despite major outbreaks not quite a year ago. There is also a risk that longer-term plans are no longer responsive to the times. A presentation from January on The City’s draft capital plan identifies $147 million in bond money to finance housing and shelter projects, but the majority of that money appears earmarked to renovate three large shelter facilities. Why renovate congregate shelter in the wake of a pandemic? Why not reimagine it instead?
We need a new kind of leadership in our homeless response system. We need to throw out the plans and do some planning. We need to get rid of the slide presentations and get out the drawing boards; we need to lead with questions and not with answers. We need partnership and shared decision-making to unplug bottlenecks and create flow through programs, because when the system gets stuck, people get stuck— waiting in shelters for housing, waiting for shelter on the streets — and rooms go empty.
Some service providers are already reimagining what shelter can look like post-pandemic. Hospitality House was the first single-adult shelter to move all their residents to a nearby hotel a year ago, and they’re reimagining shelter as small-site clusters of community. Providence Foundation — which was providing mats on the floor to homeless families when the pandemic struck—moved two dozen people and families into another nearby hotel. They moved their shelter contract to follow the families, and they’re working with a real estate consultant to locate a COVID-safe replacement shelter with real beds and amenities.
This is a replicable model that takes brilliant advantage of the current moment. We need more of it. We can reimagine the system from the ground up, we can build a kind of leadership based on partnership — if we open up information, share decision-making with service providers and the community, and insist on equity for unhoused people.
Mary Kate Bacalao is the director of external affairs and policy at Compass Family Services and the co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association.