Jul 24 2015 Working across agencies and sectors to centralize resources for homeless in San Francisco
Homelessness is a daunting problem in the United States. The Atlantic recently reported that “America has the largest population of homeless women and children in the industrialized world.” Why is homelessness so prevalent in a country with so much infrastructure, and how are local governments working to remedy it? Homeless individuals must overcome barriers such as lack of awareness of resources and difficulty navigating the various systems involved in serving the homeless population. Successful cases from around the country provide evidence of cross-sector collaboration successfully minimizing these challenges and allowing local government to provide more services to homeless populations while also reducing homelessness.
In a recent article, Stephen Goldsmith, a Professor of Practice at Harvard Kennedy School and author of “The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance,” discusses an innovation in San Francisco, a city whose homeless population is among the highest per capita in the country. “Leaving a homeless person on the street costs the city $60,000 per person per year for such services as emergency care, police visits, and shelter stays, while providing government-supported housing costs only $20,000,” Goldsmith writes. Cities should look critically at their existing shelter system and work to centralize and streamline resources via “public-private partnerships and cross-agency collaboration,” he argues.
“Leaving a homeless person on the street costs the city $60,000 per person per year for such services as emergency care, police visits and shelter stays, while providing government-supported housing costs only $20,000.”
The Navigation Center in San Francisco, for example, which opened its doors in March, offers centralized services to the city’s long-term homeless population. “The center serves as a model for how a willingness to drop old conventions, imagine new solutions, collaborate with non-traditional partners, and cooperate across governmental agencies can break down even the most persistent barriers to effective service delivery,” says Goldsmith.
Launched by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and his Director of Housing Bevan Dufty, the Navigation Center facility serves as a hub for the government resources necessary to place individuals in transitional housing, “providing services and guidance aimed at getting residents out of the center and into a place of their own faster than ever.” The Navigation Center offers “beds, showers, and meals at one location where staff will be on hand to assess [individuals’] needs for health care, substance abuse, and mental health treatment; help them access benefits; and move them into more stable housing and rehabilitation programs or reunite people with their families through the successful Homeward Bound program,” according to the Office of the Mayor of San Francisco.
“The center serves as a model for how a willingness to drop old conventions, imagine new solutions, collaborate with non-traditional partners and cooperate across governmental agencies can break down even the most persistent barriers to effective service delivery.”
The Navigation Center unites various government agencies, including police, the Department of Public Works, Animal Control, the Public Defender’s Office, the County Clerk, and the Office of Adult Probation. The Center’s work moves beyond cross-agency and into cross-sector, with case managers from local non-profit Episcopal Community Services helping to make it possible to drastically shorten the housing placement process from months to days, anticipates Dufty. Although the difficulty of coordinating various agencies is acknowledged, and even likened to “herding cats” by a homeless services manager for neighboring San Jose, Dufty remains hopeful that this collaboration will continue to have positive outcomes.
The technology making this collaboration between a non-profit and inter-governmental agencies successful is a joint database to which case managers have real-time access. This Commitment to Information Sharing among partners is critical to the timely and effective delivery of services, as well as the pilot project’s success. The collection of all data relevant to residents’ housing case files enables the coordination “across systems” that Kyle Patterson, head of San Francisco’s new City Performance Unit, identifies as the very “nature of the intervention.” The CPU also uses the database to perform weekly evaluations of the Center, providing those in charge with the information they need to make decisions related to resources and services.
The Navigation Center is unique among shelters also due to its elimination of curfew and its allowance of pets, partners, and belongings. “We’ve listened to what people on the street say doesn’t work for them, and the whole idea of this center is to take away the reasons accepting help and moving inside doesn’t work for you,” explained Dufty. This low threshold admittance policy is a great example of discerning when to adapt based on new information and is similar to the work we present in our case study of San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect. PHC conducted a same-day debriefing of both volunteers and homeless clients to get feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Incorporating the feedback of staff and residents is necessary to providing services that can actually be implemented. This is of great concern to local governments for budgetary, in addition to humanitarian, reasons.
While most of the collaborations we profile on this blog are cross-sector, it’s always interesting to examine one that is primarily cross-agency — the difficulties encountered and the benefits gained have learning value for practitioners, too.