Supervisor Matt Haney speaks at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Talks underway to secure backing for measure creating homeless oversight commission

Supes may ask SF voters to create new body to supervise the $365M homeless department

A compromise may be within reach between Supervisor Matt Haney and the Mayor’s Office over a ballot measure that would create a city commission to oversee San Francisco’s homeless department.

As the deadline approaches to place it on the November ballot, talks are underway to ensure the measure does not face organized opposition from Mayor London Breed, who is also up for reelection this November.

As introduced by Haney in May, the charter amendment would establish a seven-member commission to review and approve homeless shelter openings, contracts and policies as well as hold the department accountable. Breed, however, has raised concerns that it could create more bureaucracy and slow down efforts to house the homeless.

The measure would take power away from the head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Jeff Kositsky, and the mayor, but Haney said that a commission would actually help to address homelessness more effectively. He hopes Breed and Kositsky will “get behind it.”

“Things don’t move faster when we leave it solely to bureaucrats to move things forward,” Haney said. “Public oversight will hold them to timelines and ask tough questions about how we can move faster to get people off the street.”

The measure was introduced after a heated debate over The City’s decision to open a 200-bed homeless shelter on the Embarcadero despite opposition from nearby residents, and at a time when the latest count shows the homeless population has increased compared to 2017. The homeless department is three years old and has a budget next year of $365 million.

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee will hold a hearing on the measure Monday when amendments are expected. A subsequent committee hearing would need to be held to send it to the full board by the July 16 deadline. The measure currently has the backing of Supervisors Shamann Walton, Aaron Peskin and Hillary Ronen. It would take two more votes to place it on the ballot.

“The Mayor does not want to create more bureaucracy that gets in the way of delivering services and funding for the homeless,” Breed’s spokesperson Jeff Cretan told the San Francisco Examiner Tuesday. “The discussions between our office, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and Supervisor Haney have been in trying to craft the measure so it that doesn’t add extra bureaucracy on top of the existing numerous committees and boards we already have that oversee our homelessness efforts.”

Haney said that they have agreed to “a ton of amendments” from the homeless department and the Mayor’s Office to address “the major issues that they’ve raised, including streamlining responsibilities and reporting from existing advisory bodies and excluding any approval authority of contracts under the shelter crisis ordinance.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Haney said. “The current oversight structure is inadequate and a patchwork. I really hope they don’t come out in opposition to having the same basic level of oversight as nearly every other department. That would be disappointing and unfortunate.”

A discussion of the measure was held this week by the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which is an advisory body for the department. At the hearing, public comment included service providers who backed the measure and pro-development advocates who opposed it.

Kositsky said at the hearing he remained concerned about the measure but “hopefully we will be able to work things out between now” and Monday’s committee hearing.

“We are certainly not closed off to the idea of there being a commission, but as in many things related to the government, the devil is really in the details,” Kositsky said.

Haney’s legislative aide Courtney McDonald said at the hearing that “there are a few changes we are still working on, to be completely honest, in conversation with the department when it comes to approval authority over opening shelters and Navigation Centers.”

“We think it is really important for the commission to be able to decide and provide guidance when it comes to opening shelters and Navigation Centers,” she said.

Kositsky said he worried that the commission could lead to delays in opening shelters. He pointed to the example of the Embarcadero Seawall Lot 330 shelter.

“There are some current issues around ensuring how shelters get opened,” Kositsky said. “The board just denied the CEQA appeal on Seawall Lot 330. Technically after that appeal we would have to then go back to a commission as opposed to starting construction right away, which we are planning to do.”

“I want to make sure that we are not in any way slowing down the opening up of new facilities,” he said.

Kositsky said he also wanted the charter to explicitly state that other homeless-related bodies like the Shelter Monitoring Committee must report to the commission.

“If they were all reporting clearly up to the commission it would create the ability to set a single strategy for this city to have a clear place where policies are decided,” he said.

Another point of contention is who decides the eligibility criteria of homeless persons for services and housing.

“The department and Mayor’s Office prefer the commission not to have authority over defining eligibility criteria,” McDonald said.

Sam Lew, who works for the Coalition on Homelessness, said that homeless advocates have “often provided recommendations” on how to improve the department’s policies but “most go unheard and unanswered.”

“We really appreciate this forum here at the Local Homeless [Coordinating] Board,” Lew said. “But it is just an advisory board and doesn’t have any real teeth that an HSH commission with formal authority would have.”

“One of the places where we have really seen community members be unheard is around the family coordinated entry system, particularly around the fact that SRO families and doubled-up families are excluded from that coordinated entry system,” Lew said.

Laura Foote, executive director of pro-housing group YIMBY Action, said the commission could obstruct homeless housing.

“I am deeply concerned that we are setting up another place where homeless housing can be held hostage,” Foote said.

Under the measure, the Board of Supervisors and the mayor would each appoint three commissioners and the City Controller one. If ultimately approved by voters, The City woud establish the commission next year.

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