San Francisco’s got a brand new sheriff in town and he is sitting pretty. He’s getting $167,000 a year, but he is not running a department. He is sitting in the Mayor’s bullpen, but he is paid for by the Human Services Agency.
This newly-created position is that of the homeless czar, and it has come into being at a time when the City faces a major deficit and just about every poverty-abatement program in the city is on the chopping block. This position is a “department head” position, but has no department under it.
The role of the new homeless czar is described as coordinating the work of the different departments and City agencies to fulfill the Mayor’s policy directions on homeless issues. Under previous administrations, this used to be called the Homeless Coordinator. San Francisco had a Homeless Coordinator, or a whole series of them, for many years. Some were better than others. The position itself, however, was a complete failure, as it has been the case in just about every locality around the country. Indeed, it is a naturally awkward position, with no real authority—more a liaison or advisory the ultimate function of which ends up being defined by the public relations needs of the Mayor’s Office.
The position was taken out of the budget at the end of the Brown era and seen as superfluous. The funding was used to keep open the doors of a treatment program for African American families with parents suffering from addiction disorders.
Now, as then, coordinating is less needed than are real solutions—and there are plenty of those. The obstacles are political prioritization and, of course, resources—resources that we are told are too scarce to spare on solving homelessness. That brings us back to the homeless czardom, which really should not be a high paid position for obvious reasons.
So let’s put this big question on the table. What could we get instead for $167,000?:
Sheets, blankets, and pillows for every shelter resident; or 46 one-year methadone slots; or an elevator for a program that currently has no ADA access; or rental assistance for 27 homeless families for a year; or 41,750 meals for hungry adults and children; or 15 residential substance abuse treatment slots; or monthly outpatient mental health treatment therapy for 115 adults for a year.
Pick any one of these! We already have a Director of Homeless Programs in the Human Service Agency. Why do we need yet another high-paid top-level position? We’re not sure: Good public relations? Political patronage? But we do know that if the community were asked, it would respond that it would prefer the funding be spent on directly impacting the lives of homeless people. We tried a homeless czardom already and it didn’t work. Community members know, and kinda should be asked, don’t you think?
We also have to note the unfortunate imagery in the naming of the Mayor’s new bullpen in which the new homeless czar sits; while the pen is filled mostly with bulls, there is the token female. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands in spending on remodeling and plasma televisions. Bullpen members have since jokingly called it “plasma gate…” not particularly funny if you benefit from one of the many programs the Mayor is planning on cutting. But, hey, we are sure it is all fun and games—especially after cashing those checks.