Take Five! Q & A with SF Mayor Gavin Newsom

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National Alliance to End Homelessness

Expert Q & A | March 4, 2010

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Gavin Newsom
Mayor, San Francisco, Calif.

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
Homelessness among families and children is increasing. We have seen greater demand for our homeless services by families throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Our ability to address this spike in demand has been strengthened as a result of the Obama Administration's $1.5 billion for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP). Using local and HPRP funds we have prevented 1,612 households from becoming homeless and/or entering the emergency shelter system. Our programs are focused on keeping families in housing by both addressing the financial burden they are experiencing, coupled with short term supportive services so they can maintain that housing for the long term. In addition, we allocated local funds to provide short-term rental subsidies so families could circumvent the shelter system and move directly into housing with supportive services so they can secure employment and take over the rent payment of their new home. We will also continue to build both affordable housing and permanent supportive housing so that families with disabilities, and those that just need a stable home, can avoid entering the emergency shelter system as they move from crisis to stability.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
That shelters solve sleep, but supportive housing solves homelessness. Housing with on site supportive services is the most humane, effective and cost efficient way to end homelessness for chronically homeless adults and families. Back in 2000, we studied tenants of two new permanent supportive housing buildings to measure the impact on the emergency services system in San Francisco. We found that within 12 months of moving into supportive housing: use of emergency rooms fell by 58 percent; use of hospital inpatient beds fell by 57 percent, with another 20 percent decline the next year; and use of residential mental-health programs virtually disappeared —from an average of more than 21⁄2 days per person per year to zero, within 12 months. In addition, more than 90% of the residents maintained their housing and did not return to homelessness. This data coupled with many subsequent studies on the cost effectiveness of supportive housing cemented my resolve that we must invest our resources in this time tested and proven solution to homelessness.

How did you start working about the field of homelessness (or housing)?
While a business owner and later a member of the County Board of Supervisors, I became increasingly frustrated hearing that homelessness was an intractable problem that would always be a part of the fabric of our country. When I dug deep into the programs and services we were funding, it became crystal clear to me that our problem was our strategies--not that homeless people could not be housed and lead productive lives. I began to meet with service providers, homeless advocates and city departments who were all working on homelessness in San Francisco. I read their plans and studies, and I began to travel to cities that were implementing innovative strategies to combat the increasing number of homeless people on their streets. After careful analysis, I implemented a number of programs including the Care Not Cash Program (a welfare reform initiative that replaced cash with supportive housing) and the Direct Access to Housing Program. I also took ideas from near and far and brought them back to San Francisco, everything from our new Medial Respite and Sobering Center to our Homeless Outreach Team. Today, I am humbled as representatives from other cities come to San Francisco to learn about Project Homeless Connect and Direct Access to Housing.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
From San Francisco's creation of Project Homeless Connect. Before I became Mayor, the businesses community was doing full page ads and billboards attacking City Hall because we were failing in our efforts to end homelessness. Today, over 300 businesses are engaged in participating in Project Homeless Connect. In addition, 221 cities in three countries have replicated the model. To date, more than 29,000 people have accessed services through Project Homeless Connect, and were assisted by 19,373 unduplicated volunteers. Every time I address the volunteer rally and walk the floor of Project Homeless Connect, I am humbled that so many people are willing to take a day off of work and participate in truly being a part of the solution to ending homeless in San Francisco. The hard work has paid off, since 2004 10,848 people have left the streets and/or shelter system for permanent housing resulting in a 40% reduction in street homelessness in San Francisco. We recently announced that we reached a key milestone in our Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness having developed 1,679 new units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless within 5+ years or more than crossed the 1/2 way mark of 3000 units in 10 years as called for in the Plan.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Because I see evidence of it everyday as I walk the streets of San Francisco. Inevitably, someone will come up to me and tell me how a supportive housing unit through Care Not Cash or Direct Access to Housing ending their homelessness. They tell me about the job they have now, how they reconnected with their kids and how they take a day off every month to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect. Many of the people I speak to have been chronically homeless, some having lived on the streets for years and had given up hope. It is these real life stories in my city that strengthen my resolve that homelessness can and will be ended across the nation. We have the interventions and resolve to finish the job; the challenge now is to marshal the support and resources from every level of government to go to scale with these proven solutions. I look forward to continuing to work with State and Federal partners to end homelessness so that the next generation will only know about homelessness through reading about it and not as a result of walking down the sidewalks in the cities and towns of our great country.

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