S.F.'s homeless outreach corps a threadbare team
Feb. 11--More than 3,400 homeless people live on the streets of San Francisco, but at any given time, just two to four city-funded outreach workers are on the clock trying to persuade them to accept housing, drug and alcohol counseling or mental health services.
The outreach workers belong to a 15-member team made up mostly of former homeless people, who don't have training in social work or mental health care. They're paid $32,000 a year plus benefits.
Supervisor Mark Farrell on Tuesday plans to introduce legislation that would double the size of the Homeless Outreach Team and provide 100 additional beds to offer homeless people willing to move inside.
It is just one of many changes the District Two supervisor sees as crucial to finally getting the city's rampant homeless problem under control.
"There is no silver bullet here," Farrell said. "This is but one of myriad steps that I believe the city of San Francisco needs to take if we are going to become serious once again about addressing homelessness."
The Homeless Outreach Team was formed in 2004 as part of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The staffing and bounty of services offered to homeless people has risen and fallen over the years, along with the city's budget.
Currently, there are 15 outreach workers who roam the city's streets with the goal of helping the homeless improve their lives; most of them are "peers" who were once homeless themselves. The team runs a 24/7 operation, meaning there are just two to four working at any time. An additional 30 case managers work in city offices to help homeless people once they have been persuaded to come inside.
The operation costs the city $3.3 million a year. Farrell wants to double that to $6.6 million annually to employ 30 outreach workers and 60 case managers.
He is also calling for an additional $1 million to pay for 100 extra stabilization beds, which are short-term beds for people in crisis. The team has more than 300 stabilization beds, but most of them are full.
Farrell's legislation would be heard in the board's budget committee before being voted on by the full Board of Supervisors.
A count conducted in January 2013 found 6,436 homeless people in the city -- 3,000 of whom were considered sheltered because they were in jail, a hospital or a treatment room. The rest live on the streets. The total figure hasn't budged in several years.
At a Board of Supervisors hearing on the city's seemingly intractable homeless problem last week, the HOT team was a hot topic.
Bevan Dufty, the mayor's point man on homelessness, said the team has just one psychiatric social worker and that it should have several more to tackle the severe disabilities among homeless people -- many of whom have two to three diagnosed problems at once, such as alcohol addiction, schizophrenia or depression.
Dufty also said the team frequently has a couple of vacancies, meaning there are even fewer than 15 outreach workers on staff at a given time. He added that shelter beds and stabilization beds are close to capacity, so the outreach workers don't always have anything to offer even if a homeless person is receptive to getting inside.
Trent Rhorer, the executive director of the city's Human Services Agency, helped create Newsom's 10-year plan in 2004 and was instrumental in setting up the HOT team. He said it has never fulfilled the initial vision because it has relied mostly on peers and doesn't have enough outreach workers who are psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.
He also said the initial plan was for outreach workers to have neighborhood beats -- similar to community policing -- so they could get to know the homeless people and their individual needs. Instead, the team has taken a citywide approach.
"I think that the vision around homeless outreach has really eroded over time," Rhorer said during the hearing.
Laura Guzman is the executive director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, a drop-in center for homeless people to access services. She said the HOT team has never had a strong presence in the Mission and that, lately, some calls to the team for help have gone unanswered.
She said doubling the number of workers isn't a bad idea, but she doesn't know how the city will do it since it hasn't been able to keep all 15 positions filled. She also emphasized that her biggest priority is ensuring the team has enough housing units, alcohol-treatment programs and other services to offer homeless people.
Farrell said he is open to seeking more money for additional services, too. But in the short term, he said, beefing up the number of outreach workers could make a major difference -- even by just telling homeless people about the city's Homeward Bound program, which provides them with a one-way bus ticket home if they have a receptive friend or family member at the other end.
"The reality is we have not made a dent in the number of people living on our streets in San Francisco in the past 10 years," he said. "If we simply had the ability to reach them and offer them services in San Francisco or offer them a bus ticket home, we would be able to accomplish a ton with outreach alone."
Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @hknightsf
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