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The Mayor of Tent City

Jeff Kositsky was hand-picked to fix homelessness in San Francisco. Is he being set up to fail?


Jeff Kositsky.

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Dmarco, photographed June 1, 2016—Jeff Kositsky's first day on the job.

Photo: Andrew Caulfield

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Photo: Andrew Caulfield

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Photo: Andrew Caulfield

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Photo: Andrew Caulfield

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Jeff Kositsky turned 50 in December, and, like many married fathers of two crossing into proper middle age, he found himself pining for “something big to happen.” So first he got an ankle tattoo (a flying pig, symbolizing improbable success and good fortune). Then he headed to the ski slopes. And then he fell — hard — sustaining a chest injury so severe that his ER doctor later told him that he’d had a 50 percent chance of dying.

But fate wasn’t done with Kositsky, because then something really big happened: In the same month he landed in the intensive care unit, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee announced plans for a new city department dedicated solely to reducing homelessness. The move would at long last centralize the city’s byzantine housing and healthcare systems for the homeless, simplifying the snarl of departments and divisions created following the city’s impromptu response to the onset of “the homelessness crisis” in the 1980s. This setup had long kept the city’s homeless population at suboptimal but still manageable levels. But lately, as the ranks of street dwellers had grown unmistakably more visible, the political winds had begun to shift, and, the mayor pronounced, change was coming. In May, the new department received a name — the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing — and its first director: Kositsky.

It was already dark outside when Kositsky met me later that month at a café in Bernal Heights. As he prepared for his first government gig, he was essentially working two jobs at once — his old one, as the executive director of Hamilton Family Center, which connects homeless families to housing, and his new one, which would start officially on June 1. He’d been doing all this while still dealing with fatigue issues and internal injuries stemming from his skiing wreck. So Kositsky looked justifiably spent when he sat down to talk — but his mind was working overtime. He ordered a burger and a beer, took a deep breath, and then held forth for the next two and a half hours.

Within minutes, it was easy to see why so many people across the city’s political spectrum have only good things to say about Kositsky. Homeless advocates praise his compassion (“What he does comes from the heart”), city wonks applaud his data-driven analytics (“One of the smartest thinkers on homeless-service delivery”), and experts on all sides note his versatility in administering to single homeless adults as well as families.

Still, all the goodwill in the world won’t make Kositsky’s task any easier. Running a department in this town is always an absurdist drama — one part Parks and Recreation, one part House of Cards. But helming a department whose sole function is to fix our most intractable and humiliating civic problem is a considerably taller order. “It could be screwed up,” says a longtime City Hall denizen. “Easily.” That frank appraisal has little to do with Kositsky’s likability, depth of knowledge, or managerial experience. (Before running Hamilton, he served for eight years as the director of another homeless-service provider, Community Housing Partnership.) The danger comes from the fact that his department is the product of a shotgun wedding between portions of two entrenched bureaucracies, the Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency — the kind of consolidation that has proved difficult, if not disastrous, in the past.

To succeed, Kositsky will need a lot of help — from his new, 109-employee workforce, who’ll be asked to blend together harmoniously; from a constellation of city departments that’ll need to set aside their territorial natures and operate collectively; and from a battalion of politically influential nonprofit organizations that’ll be mandated to prove their efficacy through quantifiable data. He’ll have to do all this while coping with shrinking state and federal funding, soaring housing costs, and near-constant second-guessing and politicking by the city’s perpetually warring tribes: the Mayor’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, labor unions, homeless advocates, neighborhood groups, and God knows who else.

Whether Kositsky’s task is Sisyphean or merely Herculean remains to be seen. But it won’t take long to get an idea. “We have to agree to a mission and a strategy…within the first three months,” he says. “We have to do it quickly.”

While it may
seem that Kositsky was the perfect man for the assignment — given his nonprofit pedigree, his connections to tech moguls like Marc Benioff and companies like Google and LinkedIn (all of whom donated generously to Hamilton), and his high Q rating with the City Family — in fact he almost wasn’t considered at all. Sources confirm that the city initially pursued more prominent national figures, including a federal official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But landing on Kositsky may yet be a blessing for this city.

Though San Francisco has often been at the forefront of programs to aid the indigent (“Housing first” has been a talking point since at least the Gavin Newsom years) and the city now allots more than $200 million a year to the problem, our homeless population has remained remarkably consistent. There were an estimated 6,248 men and women on our streets and in our shelters in 2005, and there were approximately 6,686 in 2015. After all these years, our big problem is that we still have a problem. “We have all the tools, all the programs,” Kositsky argues. “We have the expertise. We have the creativity.” What we don’t always have, however, is execution. “Salt Lake City and Houston took what they learned from San Francisco,” he continues, “and — absolutely — coordinated it better than we do.” Prior to the formation of Kositsky’s department, eight different city bodies oversaw around 400 contracts with more than six dozen housing and service providers addressing the now perpetual homelessness crisis.

With that many players in the field, sometimes it’s easy to lose the ball. This can result in embarrassment for the city and great suffering for the homeless men and women it aims to help. To wit, in May 2014, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued various members of the Thakor family for “appalling” conditions in residential hotels that had been contracted by the Department of Public Health to house vulnerable homeless people in “stabilization units.” The DPH had entered into a pact with the Thakors despite their reputation among city housing experts of “underbidding on every contract and letting their buildings go to shit.” This input, however, was not sought out —and so the city attorney ended up taking action against the hoteliers for running slums on the city’s dime.

With the formation of the Department of Homelessness, policy decisions like these will be approved by Kositsky, who has expertise in homeless and housing issues. It is unlikely he will opt to do business with people like the Thakors.

Just what the city is getting from the business partners it contracts with is a multimillion-dollar question — and one that, in the past, hasn’t always been firmly asked. “I wrote my own contracts with my own goals and objectives,” a former longtime homeless-service nonprofit worker tells me. “They didn’t care what I did. They made decisions based on politics.” Those contracts, he continues, were approved, essentially pro forma, by the DPH.

Though city officials will trumpet the fact that San Francisco has housed thousands of homeless people over the last decade and sent thousands more on bus journeys to safe harbors elsewhere, the city is nonetheless saddled with the perception of being grossly dysfunctional in the realm of homeless services. Certainly our status quo could use an upgrade. But not everyone has been heartened by Mayor Lee’s plan to enact one. On March 22, a “position paper” was issued internally by the Housing and Homeless Division of the Human Services Agency — self-described as “the division that is leading the efforts on serving homeless people in San Francisco.” In this document, which San Francisco obtained via a public records request, the 50-odd HSA staffers responsible for the piece proclaimed that their division possessed “the most experience, institutional and current knowledge, and relationships with the nonprofits serving the homeless,” and thus, “our opinions on the new homeless department should be heard.” These opinions were not enthusiastic: “We believe better outcomes can be achieved with more coordination and expansion
 of services, but not as a result of taking the Housing and Homeless Division out of HSA. Doing this will cost more money, be administratively challenging, and cause a disruption of current services.” 

Longtime HSA head Trent Rhorer downplayed the notion that the paper served as a potshot at the new department and its leadership. “I have no concerns at all,” he said, about the loyalty and dedication of the division’s employees — who now comprise the lion’s share of Kositsky’s workforce. “They are professionals. They will step up and continue to work hard and house thousands.” Fair enough — but the paper was not received kindly by some within City Hall, who sighed at its provincialism. Its authors, says one veteran City Hall staffer, “enjoy working in their silo. And they are doing good work. But the idea that we can’t somehow do a reorganization on this issue is indefensible.”

And yet while consolidating departments may appear logical on paper, efforts to actually do so in San Francisco rarely go as planned. Over the last decade, attempts to unify the city’s multiple IT departments, centralize early childhood education, and streamline workforce development divisions have all, to one degree or another, failed — or nominally moved ahead only after an extreme backlash from the parties offering duplicative or overlapping services. “I believe we were thwarted,” says Ross Mirkarimi, who, as supervisor, carried legislation to consolidate workforce development, “by the fiefdoms, by the inertia.” 

So, on top of a mandate to “solve” this city’s homeless problem, that’s what Jeff Kositsky is up against: fiefdoms, inertia, and the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way mantra of those with “the most experience.” San Francisco’s newest department head may, in the short term, be more challenged by internal scuffles than by actually delivering services to the affected population. Despite carving away workers and authority from the HSA and DPH, Kositsky will still be heavily dependent on the former to administer programs for the city’s impoverished residents and on the latter to carry out mental health treatment — both of which are critical to the homeless population. And as Kositsky settles into the job, it remains to be seen how much patience — and political support — he’ll be granted. The successes of homeless programs are invisible; the failures are ever apparent.

“I want to
make sure the public understands I think there is a crisis,” Kositsky said while working through his burger. “Encampments are a crisis. Untreated mental health and substance abuse issues are a crisis. I’m not going to stop until the crisis is over.” And yet, he continued, the pervasive narrative that this city has utterly failed and its homelessness situation has gone unchecked is false. “Many other cities in the past couple of years have had double-digit increases in homelessness — Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, D.C. During that time, we’ve had a 3.7 percent increase. I’m not going to say ‘Rah-rah,’ but people need to know the facts.”

San Francisco’s homeless numbers have hardly budged over the past 10 years — which is frustrating, considering the vast amounts of money and effort expended. But it could be worse; just look almost anywhere else. In this contention, Kositsky is backed up by Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness, perhaps the most pointed critic of the city’s approach to combating homelessness. “I don’t think the situation is worse,” she says. But “there is a lot more visibility of the population,” and the people on the street now are older and sicklier than in past years. Those with long memories may recall, as Kositsky does, “350 people sleeping in front of City Hall” in 1989, the year the Philadelphia native arrived. There were, he says, “way more people living in the streets before. Way more. People forget that.” 

The problem is that, despite all the tools and expertise and programs that Kositsky lauds, and despite the HSA’s more than tenfold increase in homeless-services budgeting since 2000 and a twentyfold increase in the tally of HSA supportive housing units, we’ve only managed to tread water. And now, with Mayor Lee’s plummeting poll numbers — brought on in part by his ham-fisted response to the city’s tent encampments —treading water is no longer acceptable. And so Kositsky possesses real authority. He is not a “homeless czar” à la Bevan Dufty, who had no authority, fiscal or otherwise. (“Bevan couldn’t even get us meetings,” bemoans a city homelessness activist.) Kositsky is a real department head of a real department; he will hire his own deputy directors and — crucially — oversee $175 million in grants and contracts with the nonprofits who do much of the front-end housing and case management of homeless people. 

This may open the door to an option that some in City Hall have long sought: consolidating not just city homeless services, but also those many nonprofits. Kositsky, a data whiz at Hamilton, hopes to weed out inefficient providers and determine the tasks at which they excel or are wanting through outcome-based measurements. He’ll insist on “common standards” and uniform data systems that will reveal who is providing the most economic services. “It’s not rocket science,” he assures. “It’s been done before.” But not necessarily done in San Francisco, where it’s bound to ruffle feathers within the nonprofit community. Forcing providers to prove that they’re succeeding “is the big lever,” Kositsky says. “That’s what makes me different from Bevan’s shop — how we contract with the nonprofits.”

All of this talk has long been avoided by politicians, says one longtime city player, because “nobody wants to rile up the nonprofits.” (These organizations are often politically active and influential, and frequently lobby elected leaders.) But that may well be about to change. Asked if he’d like to consolidate the nonprofits his new department contracts with, Kositsky replies in a nanosecond: “Hells yeah.”

No matter how
competent or compassionate Kositsky is, or how effective the homeless-management computer system he hopes to create is, or how much less randomly and more appropriately the city’s scant housing will be apportioned in the near future, it’s impossible for one city to solve America’s homelessness crisis. State funds are drying up. Governor Jerry Brown, who curtailed state redevelopment agencies and has questioned the funding of affordable housing, is an angst-inducing figure within homeless and housing circles; his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is — counterintuitively — more fondly recalled. 

In the end, the one thing that would truly solve the homelessness crisis is one thing that Kositsky has severely limited ability to control: the acquisition of sufficient housing. “Better computer systems and all the other kinds of shit — it really totally misses the point. All the [housing] programs are full,” says Friedenbach. San Francisco, adds a city official who heavily backs Kositsky, has an “obligation to manage the system much better.” But without an infusion of federal resources, “the public isn’t going to see a massive improvement. Anyone who pretends otherwise is kidding themselves.”

That’s a grim assessment, and one upon which Kositsky would rather not dwell. Back at the café, he revealed that his youngest daughter’s reaction to his new job was “Now you can help Jesse!” Jesse is a neighborhood homeless guy. He has, in the past, told Kositsky that he’s gone three months without speaking to another human being and “needs to live under a bridge” because he is “really spiritual.” As if on cue, Jesse stumbled past the café, his long black hair knotted, his clothes fetid. As he passed by, he waved a half-eaten slice of salvaged pizza.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Kositsky got up and fast-walked outside. He was gone for a while; when he came back, he shook his head and said that Jesse was “usually cleaner.” Asked his prediction for the future, the new department head kept it succinct: “I am hopeful the system will work better and do a much better job than what we’re doing.” And Jesse’s future? Kositsky paused for a long while. And then: “It’s not an easy case.”


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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