Saturday, February 11, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell: Tipping point on homelessness

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell ("Tipping Point," "Blink") does a nice job of explaining the Gavin Newsom/Angela Alioto policy on homelessness, though the article doesn't mention Newsom, Alioto, or SF. 

The substance of Gladwell's piece ("Million-Dollar Murray") is old news to those of us who were paying attention in June, 2004, when Alioto, Chair of San Francisco's Ten Year Planning Council on homelessness, presented the mayor with a copy of the council's Ten Year Plan at a press conference at City Hall.

The main impetus behind the city's shift away from Continuum of Care to the Supportive Housing approach was the realization that it was a minority of the homeless that were costing the city so much money, much like a minority of cops are responsible for most the use of excessive force in the police department. Deal with that hardcore minority, and you are on the way to a real solution to the homeless problem.

Gladwell explains where the country---and San Francisco---went wrong in trying to come to grips with homelessness:

In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them?

This perspective explains why Mayor Brown, in a state of the city speech during the height of the city's homeless crisis, could throw up his hands and say, "There's not much one little city can do about homelessness. It's a national problem."

But, in Gladwell's account, a graduate student in Boston spent time in a homeless shelter as part of a research project and discovered that almost all of the people he was in the shelter with had cycled out and were going on with their lives. He put together a data base to track who was coming in and out of the system and discovered that homelessness doesn't have the distribution he expected. 

Instead, it had what statisticians call a "power law" distribution, with most of the activity at the extreme, like a few cops are responsible for most of the excessive force incidents in city police departments. He found out that the reality was that 10% of the chronically homeless were the ones commonly seen on the streets and, more importantly, costing cities the most, as they cycled in and out of emergency rooms and city jails. New York was spending $62 million on 2500 hardcore homeless every year. Boston tracked 119 chronically homeless and found that, over a five-year period, they accounted for 18,834 emergency room visits at $1000 a visit.

San Francisco isn't mentioned in Gladwell's article, but Philip Mangano is. Mangano comes out of Boston and is head of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which oversees the programs of 20 federal agencies. Mangano played an important role in convincing Mayor Newsom, Angela Alioto, and the Homeless Council to target the city's hardcore homeless. 

The result was the San Francisco Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness, which was presented to the mayor, with Mangano present, and the public during that June, 2004 press conference. Gladwell provides a succinct narrative of Mangano's mission:

In the past two years, he has crisscrossed the United States, educating local mayors and city councils about the real shape of the homelessness curve. Simply running soup kitchens and shelters, he argues, allows the chronically homeless to remain chronically homeless. You build a shelter and a soup kitchen if you think that homelessness is a problem with a broad and unmanageable middle. But if it's a problem at the fringe it can be solved. So far, Mangano has convinced more than two hundred cities to radically reevaluate their policy for dealing with the homeless.

The San Francisco Plan estimated that there are 15,000 homeless in SF, and 3000 of them qualified as "chronically homeless." These 3000 chronically homeless were consuming 63% of the city's $200 million homeless budget, which is comprised of city, state, and Federal funding. Therefore, the Ten Year Council logically concluded, the city needed to start by concentrating on those 3000 people. 

The first step is to provide these folks with "supportive housing," that is, a room where social services---psychiatric care, drug counseling, food stamps, etc.---can be delivered after the person is off the streets. The big flaw in the Continuum of Care approach is that housing was divorced from social services under the assumption that the homeless had to be "stabilized" before housing was made available.

This meant that in effect more than 1000 "homeless service programs"---including General Assistance---then in existence in San Francisco were actually enabling homeless people to continue to live on the streets.

What shocked me about that 2004 press conference that unveiled SF's new policy on homelessness was that not a single city progressive political leader was present. In fact, it's still not clear that progressive city leaders have either read the Alioto report/plan or understand its significance.

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No right turn: An exchange

Of course this no-right-turn issue can be resolved sensibly. It defies common sense to not allow people to make a right turn from Market St. onto the new freeway ramp. But the larger issue is this: How do we achieve a sensible balance between cyclists and motor traffic in the city? How far should the city go to accommodate a tiny minority of cyclists, since, according to the DMV, we now have more than 464,000 registered motorized vehicles in SF, not counting buses? And there are on average 3000 additional vehicles registered in SF every year, a trend that is largely due to gentrification.

Cyclists are taking up way too much room on the streets of the city on behalf of a transportation "mode" that will never be a serious option for an overwhelming majority of city residents. And the way the no-right-turn onto the freeway ramp was done is typical of the way the bike people are changing the streets of SF with little notice and no debate: Matt Gonzalez carried a resolution in 2004 to get it done on behalf of cyclists, with the compliance of the Board of Lemmings, a k a, the Board of Supervisors. Taking traffic lanes away from motor traffic for bike lanes on Guererro/San Jose is another example of how our streets are being transformed with no serious debate or even awareness by the public. The end result will only be to snarl traffic in a relatively small city to provide questionable gains in safety for cyclists.

Voting to make the Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no debate and no environmental study is another example of the arrogance and the excessive influence of the bike people in SF.

How allowing a right turn onto the freeway ramp will result in traffic jams is counter-intuitive and something Bob Bregoff needs to explain. The opposite would seem to be the case. Bregoff's comparing cars to cigarettes is a poor analogy, though it shows that he's a full-fledged bike zealot. And, yes, SF is a "transit first" city, but bikes are not on an equal footing with buses, though the bike fanatics would like to change that.

According to the original resolution authorizing the right turn ban, this was supposed to be a six-month trial. Hence, my original message to Ross was both a reminder of that and a request for information from DPT, which presumably has been collecting information on the experiment since last September. Ross has not responded to my request.
(For the backstory on the no-right-turn issue, see this.)

From: Jeff Hagan
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 2006

Sharing. What a concept. That's a great suggestion Joanne.

But wait. I'm not sure the zealots would want to consider such a thing---it would imply cooperating with "destructive private auto drivers." If only we could be frog-marched to South San Francisco and summarily executed.

I guess since I ride a bike and a motorcycle, but still drive my car sometimes, I would be part of the group that is shot.


From: Rob Bregoff
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 2006

Sorry that Mr. Lanier thinks that auto use shouldn't be described as "destructive," but with over 45,000 auto-related deaths per year in the US alone, and cars being the chief source of greenhouse gasses, I don't know any flattering descriptions for auto use. Cars have made 90% of our public space dangerous to any users but drivers.Smoking was once not considered a dangerous habit, and it took awhile for society to wake up and discover that they didn't have to breathe other peoples' smoke. Habitual smokers still complain that their rights are being impeded by people who dont want to be around them. San Francisco is a Transit/Ped/Bike first city, so it is imperative that the saftey of non-automotive users of the public space be considered before the convenience of drivers. The city doesn't owe you a fast route to work, or a parking space. Drivers and smokers need to consider alternatives.

Rob Bregoff

From: "Marc J. Zilversmit"
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Wed, 8 Feb 2006

The ramp or the arrow would be better solutions. The one collision (though I'm sure it was for those injured) should not control the debate anymore than the recent collision between two bicyclists on Fell Street (which resulted in serious injury) should be cause for reform. Perhaps a ramp, or arrow solution along with better signage would even have avoided that one collision.

Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2006

Would a ramp be the solution for the bikes and the pedestrains? That way,the cars and the others would not have to worry about each other.

Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2006

Why not put an arrow that is green when you can turn right and red when you can't. When the right turn arrow is green, bicycles have to wait. When it is red, the bicycles can go forward. That way, everybody shares.

Joanne Minsky

From: Andrew Sullivan
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Mon, 6 Feb 2006

two lane turns from division to s. van ness are no big deal, as long as the pedestrian signal is there. But the no right turn from market needs to stay. Danger to bikes is too severe otherwise.On that note, where are the big signs on market saying "80 / 101 via Gough, straight ahead"? signage is much better on fell, oak, and octavia, but not market.

From: Rob Bregoff 
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Fri, 3 Feb 2006

There has been at least one collision resulting in injury between an unlawful driver and a lawful cyclist. This intersection was planned for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, as it should be in a city that values these transportation modes over destructive private automobile use. There are myriad alternatives for drivers seeking freeway ingress. One could imagine not only the danger to non-motorists were this turn permitted, but the traffic backups on Market which would certainly illegally impede MUNI service. I would challenge Mr. Anderson to explain how the bulbout increases danger to cyclists. Personally, I'm very happy it's there.

Rob Bregoff

ps: At the request of motorists, Supervisor Dufty recently introduced legislation to re-increase the Division Street/South Van Ness on-ramps from one lane back to two, as it was during boulevard construction.

From: Rob
To: Ross Mirkarimi
Subject: Right Turn onto New Market Street Freeway Ramp
Date: Fri, 27 Jan 2006


You probably remember last year's kerfuffle over the ban on making a right turn onto the new freeway ramp on Market St. across from the new, unimproved Octavia Blvd. It turns out that your predecessor carried a resolution on behalf of the cycling community to put this ban in force in 2004, much to the annoyance and inconvenience of city drivers. As the media accounts noted at the time, the no-right-turn ban is a six-month trial. The text of Resolution 508-04 confirms this:

Further resolved, that the Department shall collect data related to traffic, bicycle, and pedestrian safety and flow during the first six months of the opening of the freeway ramp, and shall make adjustments to and shall implement any additional traffic control devices and signage as necessary to maximize the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists through the intersection, and the Department shall report its findings to the Board of Supervisors at the end of that period.

The six-month trial will soon be over. Can we assume that DPT has been diligently collecting data on this experiment and will soon announce its findings? We can only hope that the city, with your support, will end this preposterous inconvenience to the city's 464,000 drivers and jackhammer up the huge bulb-out that actually makes this intersection more dangerous to city cyclists.

Rob Anderson

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