San Francisco's Holistic Approach to Helping the Homeless

Aiming to get more people into housing faster, the city is breaking down a lot of barriers.

Local governments taking on homelessness struggle with several serious challenges: how to measure success; how to coordinate services when the issues faced by homeless people are so varied; and how to provide help without encouraging undesirable consequences, as happened in New York City years ago when the homeless could jump the queue and acquire scarce Section 8 federal housing vouchers.

To address these complex questions, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and his director of housing, Bevan Dufty, launched in March the city's Navigation Center. The innovative new facility is part of a larger pilot project that aims to get San Francisco's homeless population off the streets and into housing by rethinking the traditional shelter model and by consolidating and streamlining resources through public-private partnerships and cross-agency collaboration.

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The Navigation Center is different from many shelters in that it elminates curfews and allows its residents to bring their partners, pets and possessions into the center with them. This change has given the city access to homeless people who previously evaded government outreach because they refused to be separated from the people and things they cherished. The consolidation of government resources within the Navigation Center has streamlined the process of securing transitional housing, providing services and guidance aimed at getting residents out of the center and into a place of their own faster than ever.

Making this happen requires the completion of an array of tasks, such as attaining a photo ID and securing a source of income, that underline the need for better coordination of assistance. The city is collaborating with nonprofits and coordinating across governmental agencies (including police, the department of public works, animal control, the public defender's office, the county clerk and the office of adult probation). When people arrive at the center, they are paired with case managers from the nonprofit Episcopal Community Services who help them apply for benefits, documentation and other assistance through the agency partnerships. Because of this collaboration, Dufty and his team believe that they can reduce the housing placement process, which typically takes months, to less than 10 days.

"The nature of the intervention is one of coordinating across systems," says Kyle Patterson, the head of San Francisco's new City Performance Unit (CPU). To make this work effectively, Patterson created a joint database. All of the departments and organizations involved with the Navigation Center pool data relevant to the housing case files of the center's residents. Navigation Center case managers have real-time access to this integrated data, giving them a holistic view of where their clients are in the array of steps within the housing process.

The CPU is using this database to create weekly evaluations of the Navigation Center. These reports track and visualize metrics such as number of active clients, number of people housed and average length of stay. This feedback provides those in charge with pertinent and actionable information to allow them to make decisions about where to allocate resources and improve services.

By helping more of San Francisco's homeless population to get off of the streets and into supportive housing, the Navigation Center stands to produce significant savings for the city. 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 is still in its early stages, but in its two months of operation it has served almost 100 people, including homeless military veterans, and piqued the interest of housing officials around the country. 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.

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
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