The March 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Truth About Care Not Cash

Resistance to Brown's Curfew

No Millionaire Left Behind

Bush Policies Punish the Poor

Bush Rigs U.S. Society for Rich

SOS! Save Our Services

Faith Reflection on Bush Budget

Plan to End Homelessness in Ten Years

Counted Out in San Francisco

Artist Portrays Act of Giving

Berkeley Protest Demands Shelter from the Storm

Transformation of Dignity Village

George Wynn's Homeless Fiction

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.


A Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in San Francisco

The new Ten Year Plan states: "San Franciscans consistently identify homelessness as the number one problem in San Francisco."

by Robert L. Terrell

Chronic homnelessness persists and increases in San Francisco, one of the most affluent cities in the nation. Robert Terrell photo.

In the spirit of giving credit where it is due, everyone in the Bay Area seriously engaged in the struggle to eliminate chronic homelessness should check out recent developments in San Francisco.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who came into office a year or so ago pledging to make a definitive, positive difference in the struggle to eliminate chronic homelessness in the city, has kick-started a process that has begun to exhibit impressive early results.

Street-side deaths evidently are down during the past year, and a recent count of the city's homeless populace indicates that the number of people living on the streets is apparently in decline.

Supportive housing units are being provided to homeless people. In addition, the broad range of options that city officials are providing for volunteers are attracting hundreds of people eager to do what they can to help. For the first time in years, progress apparently is being made. This is engendering hope and enthusiasm.

All this is being accomplished within the context of San Francisco's Ten Year Plan to Eliminate Chronic Homelessness. In response to federal prodding, in the form of encouragement and grants, many cities around the nation are developing such plans. San Francisco is farther along in the process than most cities. Nonetheless, much needs to take place before the Ten Year Plan is fully implemented. Furthermore, there are numerous reasons to assume that the way forward will not prove easy. Failure is still a distinct possibility.

The most important strategic point to be understood about the current situation in San Francisco, according to Mayor Newsom, is that "homelessness has replaced the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable car as one of San Francisco's defining features." This sentiment is widely shared throughout the city.

Most important, it has engendered broad agreement in every segment of the population that the time has come to do whatever it takes to eliminate chronic homelessness in San Francisco.

The number one problem

The Ten Year Plan summarizes the predominant consensus regarding this matter thusly: "San Franciscans consistently identify homelessness as the number one problem in San Francisco."

The Ten Year Plan also notes that "voters have repeatedly sent a clear and overwhelming message to City Hall that they want change, and are willing to try any and all new approaches that look promising and do not perpetuate the status quo."

Given the nearly unanimous yearning in the city for an end to chronic homelessness, this is clearly a propitious moment where this particularly complicated social problem is concerned. Thus, for better or worse, eliminating chronic homelessness has become the definitive litmus test regarding the city's collective sense of its functionality and future prospects.

If the Ten Year Plan is successfully implemented, that accomplishment will exert a profoundly positive influence on the overall quality of life in San Francisco for generations to come. That positive impact will almost certainly inspire a renaissance of hope and optimism throughout San Francisco regarding the city's ability to conceptualize, design and implement programs that either eliminate, or significantly neutralize, critical social problems.

Conversely, if San Francisco experiences significant failure regarding its nascent effort to implement the Ten Year Plan, the negative impact will be registered throughout the city, and possibly the nation, for years to come.

Building strategic support

The best insurance for success is broad, enthusiastic, public support for the Ten Year Plan, and the manner in which it is being implemented.

Thus, the better people understand the Ten Year Plan, the more likely it will be implemented in an efficient and timely manner. It is also true that the better city officials understand the thinking and aspirations of the broad, representative coalition of civic groups and individual citizens that produced the Ten Year Plan, the more likely they will proceed in ways that engender the political and financial support they will need to implement it in an effective manner.

As indicated above, maintaining sufficient levels of cohesion and enthusiasm throughout the long, and occasionally fractious, process necessary for successfully implementing the Ten Year Plan will prove difficult. Nonetheless, the chances for success will be significantly enhanced if city officials devote major, strategic attention to communicating with the broadest segment of the local populace.

Without broad and sustained public support, the chances for success are very slim. Conversely, prospects for success will be significantly improved if city officials make the broadest possible use of communication modes that facilitate two-way exchanges of messages. In other words, to the extent possible, the city should employ modes of communication that recipients of its messages can use to provide direct feedback.

By embracing this approach, and practicing it whenever and wherever possible, city officials will send a compelling, inspirational signal. In addition to radically expanding the scope and character of the information received by city officials, communications modes that incorporate easy-to-use feedback loops tend to engender trust and cooperation. Two-way modes of communication also expand the probability that poorly conceived practices and objectives will be identified and rectified, sooner rather than later.

In the best circumstances, citizens who are provided opportunities to send as well as receive information regarding major civic projects such as the Ten Year Plan have a tendency to buy in and proudly claim proportionate ownership. The more citizens who end up owning the Ten Year Plan due to positive impressions created by their participation in dialogue with the city officials responsible for implementing it, the higher the probability that the overall project will be widely received and enthusiastically supported.

Such support will be crucial when the time comes to implement decisions that challenge current funding priorities and practices in conflict with the fundamental reforms mandated in the Ten Year Plan. It seems reasonable to assume that, sooner or later, those conflicts will engender a "perfect storm."

The manner in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on homelessness in San Francisco will be determined by the level of success that city officials experience when they encounter that storm, which will almost certainly find them under sustained, severe attack by forces committed to current programs and fiscal priorities.

Nonetheless, the undeniable fact that everyone needs to understand is that current programs and fiscal priorities are inadequate because they are largely intended to service victims, not eliminate chronic homelessness.

Thirty years of failure ought to be sufficient to convince even the most obdurate opponents that a new service model, and new funding priorities, are in order. Making it happen is going to take muscle of the sort that can only be mustered with widespread, informed public support.

Outreach to citizens of color

Given all this, city officials need to devote special attention to communicating with groups of citizens traditionally excluded from decision-making levels of participation in major municipal projects. This is particularly the case regarding people of color, who constitute a disproportionately large percentage of San Francisco's thousands of chronically homeless residents.

Active participation in the process of implementing the plan by people of color, and other marginalized groups, is highly desirable for many reasons. One of the most important is the fact that their participation will mitigate traditional forms of skepticism, avoidance and passive resistance regarding government-sponsored projects, which are commonly thought of by many people of color as scurrilous and untrustworthy exercises of white authority that decent citizens should assiduously avoid.

Chronic homelessness is, of course, color blind.

Given the rising number of homeless people who are white and formerly well off, homelessness is obviously everyone's business. All efforts devoted to communicating such facts to people of color will pay off handsomely for all concerned as the Ten Year Plan is implemented. Moreover, the better the plan is understood and owned by San Francisco's people of color, the better the chances it can be successfully implemented.

Nonetheless, it should be understood from the outset that achieving effective, two-way communication with people of color will prove difficult. Group-specific messages and venues will need to be carefully selected, diplomatically deployed and regularly updated and refined.

Special attention should also be devoted to incorporating the relatively large number of city residents who do not speak English into the dialogue. The same is true of the subset of citizens who neither read nor write English, or any other language.

At the very least, this means that some information will need to be transmitted via radio, compact disks, and tape recordings. Moreover, to the extent possible, group-specific material should be developed and deployed in each of the major languages spoken in San Francisco.

If outreach efforts of this sort are mounted and sustained, a critical mass of groups and individuals representing San Francisco's largely disengaged, colored majority can be counted on to provide definitive support for the Ten Year Plan, and its historically significant mandate. If that support is strong, informed, enthusiastic and consistent, it will be difficult to impossible for any problems or opponents to impede implementation of the plan.

However, it should be noted that if significant opposition to the Ten year Plan coalesces among people of color, it is highly unlikely that it can be successfully implemented.

Including homeless people

City officials also need to take the necessary steps to ensure that homeless people are included as active participants in decision-making loops regarding implementation of the Ten Year Plan. In order to accomplish this, they will need to be ever conscious of the important differences between those who are homeless, and those who purport to speak for them in venues sponsored by the municipal government.

Direct communication with homeless people, who also communicate with each other to a much greater extent than is normally recognized by those who do not inhabit their stratum of society, will require the development of relatively novel outreach efforts.

Many of the shortcomings that currently plague the city's overnight shelters are at least partially due to the fact that the concerns of the legions of homeless people who avoid them like the plague are not adequately addressed via appropriate modes of interactive communication.

Unfortunately, the same is largely true of the horrendous collection of decades-old problems that keep San Francisco's municipal housing projects enmeshed in interminable, dispiriting crises. The key point to be understood is that city officials need to anticipate, and hopefully diffuse, whatever objections homeless people might have regarding the Ten Year Plan.

If this is not done, there is a high probability that a significant percentage of the city's homeless people will reject the Ten Year Plan, and worse yet, boycott the new, supportive housing units around which the plan has been designed.

Given this, it is critically important that appropriate effort and resources be deployed to win strong support from homeless citizens. If this is done properly, they, too, will seek proportionate ownership of the Ten Year Plan, and the life-enhancing benefits that will accrue to them after it is implemented.

Including conservatives

In order to attract sustained, active support from the broadest possible segment of the community, city officials should also devote special attention to communicating with conservative individuals and groups, including the business community. Although conservatives are in the minority, their support may prove critical to successful implementation of the plan.

Officials should take the steps necessary to ensure that issues of typical and specific interest to conservatives, including individual responsibility, fiscal accountability and efficient government operations, are seriously and consistently emphasized. One of the best way to accomplish this is to establish dedicated channels of communication with conservatives.

Furthermore, it should be understood that enthusiastic conservative support will almost certainly be forthcoming if city officials make all information, documents and decision-making pertinent to the Ten Year Plan, open, transparent and easily available to any and all interested members of the community.

This is particularly the case regarding expenditures, including all hiring, purchases, the awarding of grants and dispensations pertinent to service contracts.

Addressing cronyism

Finally, it should be noted that a broadly shared opinion among San Francisco residents is that the haphazard, uncoordinated, friends-first-and-due-process-later mentality and behavior of successive generations of municipal administrations is significantly responsible for the current severity of the local homeless problem. This fact needs to be faced and understood, regardless of whether one considers it fair or accurate.

Should officials fail to respond appropriately to this widespread conviction, an historic opportunity for the citizens of San Francisco, including the chronically homeless, will have been unnecessarily, if not tragically, squandered.

In the meantime, progress is being made, and the city officials responsible for it, including Mayor Newsom, should take a bow. More power to them.

Robert Terrell is a professor of communications at California Sate University, Hayward, and a member of the Mayor's Implementation Council for the Ten Year Plan.

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