Monday, November 12, 2007

Homeless policy in SF: The next step

Mayor Newsom hasn't provided any specifics yet on where he's going politically in the next four years, but he's unlikely to accept Trent Rohrer's resignation letter. As head of the city's Dept. of Human Services, Rohrer has been with Newsom on homeless policy every step of the way since Care Not Cash. The question now is, What's the next step on homeless policy in SF? More aggressive outreach seems like the logical next step to get homeless people off the streets and to keep them from camping in Golden Gate Park. But C.W. Nevius outlined how ineffectual the city is in dealing with the mentally ill living on our streets:

In a perfect world, that[people off their meds] could be addressed by Laura's Law, a state statute that allows the courts to commit patients who refuse voluntary treatment, provided they have been determined to be "unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision." Unfortunately, the law isn't used in San Francisco, or in most other counties. Officials generally point to the expense as a major hurdle. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who in the past said he wanted to implement Laura's Law, hasn't done so, citing among other reasons "institutional resistance." ("Mentally ill street people's rights thwart efforts to prevent harm," C.W. Nevius, SF Chronicle, Nov. 4, 2007)

A link for Laura's Law.

The city's Ten Year Plan, completed in June, 2004, also talks about this aspect of homelessness:

Current protective custody standards are inadequate and they are inconsistently applied. Only a third of the people brought to psychiatric emergency services are placed in treatment. Often homeless serious mentally ill people are released to the street without treatment only to be picked up later that day or soon thereafter...There is also a real need to find ways to prevent people from losing their homes due to the symptoms caused by mental illness. Twenty-five percent of the homeless have been hospitalized for psychiatric disorders; often mental illness is accompanied by substance abuse (page 31, SF's Ten Year Plan).

If the mayor can budget money for more outreach workers in general, why can't he do the same for this subset of the homeless?

In any event, many people---especially the mayor's political opponents---are still trying to deny that any progress has been made on homelessness in SF under Newsom. As someone who spends a lot of time moving around on city streets, my impression is that there has been a lot of progress. Kevin Fagan, the author of the fine Shame of the City series in the Chronicle, recently wrote a story that confirms my impression: "City and federal officials pointed out that between 2002 and 2007, the number of chronically homeless people in San Francisco dropped 38 percent, from 4,535 to 2771." (As U.S. reports lower numbers of homeless, city hailed as 'model, Kevin Fagan, SF Chronicle, Nov. 8, 2007). Fagan's Shame of the City series, worthy of a Pulitzer Prize)

And the 2007 homeless count, released in March of this year, shows that the number of homeless on city streets has indeed declined. The mayor's critics make much of the fact that, in absolute numbers, homelessness has increased. But the charge ignores an important fact: for the first time, the 2007 homeless count covered the whole city instead of covering known locations of the homeless and trying to project a count for the rest of the city. Hence, the 2007 count included 374 of the homeless that wouldn't have been included in the 2005 count.

The San Francisco 2007 Homeless Count

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