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S.F. Has a Plan for Homeless Problem

Times Staff Writer

City officials announced an ambitious 10-year plan Wednesday aimed at one of the nation’s most intractable homelessness problems, saying they hope to “abolish chronic homelessness” by replacing emergency shelters with permanent housing that includes supportive services.

The new plan, which Bush administration officials have praised as a potential national model, would try to move the most desperate street people out of shelters and into permanent housing where they could receive treatment for addiction, mental illnesses and other chronic health problems.

“It’s a significant day in San Francisco,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom, who campaigned last year on a pledge to attack the problem aggressively. “We’re moving ... toward a goal and desire not to manage but to end homelessness. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, if we have the courage to change.”

For years, San Francisco has poured funds into social and medical services for the homeless while dealing separately with the issue of housing. That approach, officials say, has proved to be inefficient.

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The city government spends about $200 million a year on helping the homeless. Of San Francisco’s estimated 15,000 homeless, 3,000 who are defined as “chronically homeless” use up about 63% of the money, said former San Francisco Supervisor Angela Alioto, who led the effort to develop the new plan.

The care of one chronically homeless person using shelters for housing, hospital emergency rooms for medical treatment, or jails, where inmates also receive medical services, costs $61,000 a year, city officials estimate. Permanent supportive housing, including treatment and care, would cost $16,000, they say.

Providing services more efficiently for the chronically homeless would free funds that could be used to help the other 12,000 people who are homeless for shorter periods of time, officials hope.

Mark Trotz, who directs a small, but highly touted, supportive-housing program for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the trick would be reallocating money from the criminal justice and emergency medical systems to pay for more supportive housing.

“It’s a matter of us waking up and realizing that we’re spending the money anyway, but we’re spinning our wheels,” he said.

The program Trotz runs, Direct Access to Housing, accommodates about 400 of the city’s most dysfunctional former homeless people in renovated residential hotels staffed around the clock with nurses, doctors and counselors.

The San Francisco plan was hammered out in 84 contentious meetings by nearly three dozen government, social service, business and labor leaders under the guidance of Alioto.

Newsom stressed that the existence of a strong plan on combating homelessness would enable him to seek financial help from San Francisco’s restaurant industry and its major hotels, which last year launched a controversial anti-panhandling billboard campaign.

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“I want the Hotel Council not to invest in advertising all about what’s wrong with this city, but to invest in programs,” Newsom said.

The existence of the blueprint also will increase the city’s chances of receiving federal funds, said Philip Mangano, who directs the Bush administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and has worked closely with San Francisco and other cities on plans to combat homelessness.

(Mangano also has met with Mayor James K. Hahn and commended Los Angeles’ efforts to draft its own 10-year-plan, expected later this year.)

Mangano stood with the 33-member planning council Wednesday, saying the city’s approach could have impact across the country if successful.

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“I think San Francisco has the most visible experience of chronic homelessness in our country,” he said. “When people go home, they talk about the beauty and great food, but they also talk about the homeless people they had to step over. With this plan, the city has the capacity to be the tipping point on the issue of homelessness in our country.”

Homeless advocates applaud the concept of supportive housing. But “real supportive housing for people who have real complex and chronic mental health and addiction issues is expensive,” said Kym Valadez, program director at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans service organization. “We’ve seen what happens when you take people with those kinds of issues and fill up buildings without giving them the proper support.”

A “massive commitment” of state and federal dollars is needed to make the plan work, she and other social service providers said.

Members of Congress have been discussing a $70-million program that would provide money to cities with strong 10-year plans. But that amount, even if it gains approval, is tiny compared with the scope of the problem, said Paul Boden, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and a member of the council that put the plan together.

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“It’s a great plan,” Boden said of the document unveiled Wednesday. “And so were the other 12 plans I’ve worked on in the time that the federal government has started requesting and requiring that plans be written.”

Boden and Newsom also criticized the Bush administration for promoting the 10-year plans while proposing to cut $1.6 billion from the country’s core housing subsidy program for the poor, known as Section 8. Displacing the poor from subsidized housing will surely lead to an increase in homelessness, Boden said. At Wednesday’s news conference, Newsom called the Section 8 cuts “unacceptable.”


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