Fighting Homelessness in San Francisco

San Francisco implements a controversial new program to help the city's homeless get back on their feet. Tara Siler reports.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Ed Gordon.

Today, the first in a two-part series on homelessness on Los Angeles' Skid Row, which has the most dense homeless population in America. But first, in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsome has launched a 10-year plan to launch homelessness there. Like other mayors, he has embraced the Housing First! model, with the idea of first stabilizing the homeless in housing and then providing them with support services. Tara Siler reports.

TARA SILER reporting:

The city of San Francisco estimates there are some 8,000 homeless people here, with 2,500 wandering the streets on any given night. Many converge here, in the gritty Tenderloin district, where the city is housing many of the homeless in the scores of single room occupancy hotels lining the streets.

Mr. BEN AMES (Outreach Worker, San Francisco): This is the Bristol Hotel, and this is one of the hotels where we have stabilization rooms for clients that are in treatment.

SILER: These new clients must first sign a treatment contract, agreeing to work with case managers like Ben Ames. He's an outreach worker for the city and county of San Francisco, and he is one of 24 staff trying to move the chronically homeless into one of the program's 2,800 housing units.

(Soundbite of knocking on door)

Mr. AMES: Hey, Rick. It's Ben. Hey.

SILER: Rick Morrell(ph) is a 47-year-old, self-described dope fiend, who has lived on the streets for 17 years. His chipped teeth and glassy eyes are markers of a hard life. It took Ben Ames two months to convince Morrell to enter the program.

Mr. RICK MORRELL: Well, basically, they grabbed me by the neck, stood me up, dusted me off, put me back on my feet, I guess. You know, I could see that they wanted to help me out, give me a chance, so I've decided to give it a try, you know.

SILER: The help began with a simple temporary room and an agreement to enter drug treatment. Then Ames helped Morrell get on welfare and social security. He lined him up with a psychiatrist and a primary care doctor. Ames says he also provides basic role modeling for Morrell, who has trouble managing his anger.

Mr. AMES: One thing that Rick and I spent a lot of time doing when I first met Rick was Rick could not stand in line. So I'd stand in line with Rick, and I explained to him, this is what we do. So we're going to be really appropriate, and we're going to say please and thank you, and when we get really frustrated, we're not going to yell at people.

SILER: Morrell has come so far, he will soon graduate to permanent housing as part of San Francisco's controversial Care Not Cash Program, where he will have drastically reduced welfare payments in exchange for housing and onsite services. That tough-love approach has come under fire from some housing advocates who say City Hall's reallocation of welfare funds is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Jennifer Friedenbach, organizing director with the Coalition for the Homeless, offers some praise to the outreach program, but says that triage approach can leave those considered less needy on long waiting lists.

Ms. JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH (Organizing Director, Coalition for the Homeless): So, basically, what they did was just carved a side--a portion of existing, under funded services and gave them to the people lucky enough to come in contact with an outreach worker. And so, yeah, they've had success, but a lot of this is basically rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

SILER: What's really needed, says Friedenbach, is a lot more federal funding. Trent Rhorer, director of San Francisco's Health and Human Services Department, says that would be welcomed. But he says this current strategy makes fiscal and moral sense.

Mr. TRENT RHORER (Director, San Francisco Health and Human Services Department): If we have limited resources, we're going to triage to those who are most in need and those other chronically homeless; because, over time, we'll save money, but we'll also be addressing individuals who have such significant barriers that absent this sort of intervention, they will never get better.

SILER: Rhorer says the beauty of the outreach program is it gives access to services and housing in real time.

Mr. RHORER: Where an outreach worker can go to an individual on the street that they may have a relationship with and say, we have a methadone maintenance slot for you now, or we have a housing unit for you now; are you ready?

SILER: Back at the Bristol Hotel, Rick Morrell arranges his appointments with his outreach worker. He's been off drugs now for more than a year and plans to stick with the program.

Mr. MORRELL: I've got no desire for any drugs. I'm a totally different person from, say, a year and a half ago to now, totally different person. I look different; I act different; I'm sort of almost a citizen, you know, almost.

SILER: Morrell seems to be on track to joining the more than 1,700 other homeless people who have been placed in supportive housing by San Francisco over the past two years. According to the city, 95 percent of those housed so far are still there.

For NPR News, I'm Tara Siler, in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.