San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced Thursday that she had appointed Shireen McSpadden, the current executive director of the Department of Disability and Aging Services, to be the next head of the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
McSpadden is expected to assume the role on May 1, as the Examiner first reported. The position has been technically vacant for over a year, since the departure of the founding head of the department, Jeff Kositsky. Kositsky moved over to a new role about two weeks before pandemic lockdowns began last March, taking over the city's Healthy Streets Operation Center — a collaboration with the police department to address the growing encampment problem, which, as we all know, only grew larger in the last year.
The interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, served out the remainder of last year and resigned from the role in mid-March, as the Chronicle reported. She became special adviser at the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, and Sam Dodge, a former deputy in the department, has been interim director for the last several weeks.
Stewart-Kahn characterized the move as a planned one, though members of the Board of Supervisors and other figures in City Hall called it a surprise — with Supervisor Matt Haney saying it was "both problematic and strange" that the department "would so abruptly change leadership at such a pivotal moment in the fight against homelessness."
McSpadden takes over as the issue of homelessness remains of obvious and central concern for San Francisco residents, and she will be overseeing the transition of hundreds of individuals from city-funded hotel rooms into more permanent supportive housing.
Mayor Breed issued a statement Thursday extolling McSpadden's experience, and saying, "For years, Shireen has led innovative and effective efforts to care for some of our most vulnerable residents, and over the past year she has been one of the leaders keeping our residents safe, healthy, and housed during this pandemic."
McSpadden, who has headed the Department of Disability and Aging Services since 2016, issued her own statement saying, "Our response to homelessness is one of the most important, pressing and complex issues facing this City as we emerge from this pandemic, and I’m excited to join the Department of Housing and Supportive Housing to continue the work to serve some of our City’s most vulnerable residents."
An August report on the homelessness department by the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office found that it was understaffed and severely unprepared for the homeless crisis that became even more dramatic during the pandemic year. The report found that the department had left $26.5 million of its budget unspent last year.
Also, in recent months, Stewart-Kahn had faced criticism over the exorbitant cost of keeping homeless people in city-sanctioned tent "villages" — approximately $60,000 per year per tent, or the cost of a decent two-bedroom apartment. And it also came to light that many unhoused individuals staying in hotels around the city were refusing offers of supportive housing that they would have to begin paying for — because the hotels are free, and likely a lot nicer.
The sheer size of the homeless population in San Francisco has likely never been accurately counted, but even the best approximation done by the biennial January point-in-time census has not been conducted since 2019. This year's count was canceled due to pandemic safety concerns.
The 2019 census found over 8,000 people living on the streets or in shelters, and contrary to public perception, the vast majority had been SF residents before becoming homeless. But city officials told the Chronicle last month that they think the numbers are far bigger now.
There were reports — in particular one from the fire chief last year — that homeless people from other counties had relocated to San Francisco when the hotel-room program was launched, and reportedly some openly asked outreach personnel how they could get a room. Mayor Breed repeatedly said that the rooms were only available to individuals already registered in the city's systems as having received services before the pandemic began.
According to the latest data from the department, 2,308 individuals are currently residing in city-funded hotel rooms or trailers — the expense of which is expected to be fully reimbursed by FEMA. Cumulatively since the alternative housing program began, 10,300 people have been discharged from rooms or shelters and/or rehoused — with 4,500 of those discharged from COVID-related isolation or quarantine. Only about 200 of those individuals have landed in permanent supportive housing to date.
"It is a meat grinder of a job,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, speaking to the Chronicle last month as Stewart-Kahn left the Department of Homelessness. “And it’s an impossible job. The department is under-resourced for what we ask it to do, the politics are intense and crazy-making, the advocacy community is energized and the supervisors are unforgiving."
The Coalition on Homelessness, for one, praised Breed's pick.
"We are really excited for new leadership and have high hopes that the city can seize the opportunities we have to move the dial on homelessness,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition, in a statement to the Examiner. "We have had nothing but positive experiences with the new director and as a woman of color we are confident she’ll bring fresh perspective and badly needed inspiration into the homeless department."
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