Chronicle Gets NYC v. SF Homeless Story Wrong Again

by Randy Shaw on June 15, 2004

If I had not started a program in 1988 which resulted in San Francisco placing thousands of homeless single adults directly in non-segregated permanent housing, I might have been impressed by The Chronicle’s front page story yesterday on a New York City program that started in 1992 using a similar model. But whereas the Chronicle never ran a story on the thousands housed by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Modified Payment Program, it now finds NYC’s much smaller ( 450 total placements) Pathways to Housing program to be a “cutting edge” supportive housing technique. The Chronicle’s touting of East Coast homeless programs that have nowhere near the track record of our own is the latest in its ongoing series of misinformed pieces about homelessness.

Last year, the Chronicle ran a story on New York City’s allegedly unique and successful approach to homelessness. I was asked to be on a KPFA radio show with NYC’s Joe Weisbord, a former top staffer with the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the then head of Housing First, a citywide coalition of affordable housing groups.

Since the premise of the Chronicle story was that San Francisco could learn much from NYC, the host asked Weisbord about this. He replied, “As Randy well knows, we have always looked to San Francisco in addressing homelessness.” The rest of the interview focused on what NYC has learned from our city about successful homeless programs.

At the time of last year’s Chronicle tribute to NYC homeless policies, the New York Times was reporting that NYC’s homeless problem was worse than ever. Rudy Giuliani even acknowledged this when he left office in 2002. But neither fact was reported in the Chronicle.

The Chronicle gave front-page treatment and a banner story to a NYC program that serves 450 people. This represents a little over 1% in a city whose homeless population is estimated by the Chronicle at 38,000.

In contrast, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Modified Payment Program provided permanent housing for over 1000 homeless persons annually from 1989-92, which represented at least 10% of the city’s estimated homeless population. None of these tenants were required to undergo alcohol or drug treatment prior to being housed, a component of Pathways that the Chronicle finds “cutting edge.” Over 1000 tenants are currently enrolled in the Clinic’s Program.

The Pathways to Housing program lauded by the Chronicle has three flaws that should have been obvious.

First, as the paper did note, it serves too few people to make a meaningful dent in the city’s homeless population.

Second, the program relies on the availability of subsidized apartments. But as virtually every newspaper but the Chronicle has reported, the Bush Administration is hellbent on killing the Section 8 housing program that is most responsible for subsidizing the rents of disabled tenants. The reason the Pathways group is so small is that in cities like SF or NYC, sufficient housing units simply do not exist.

Third, programs that place tenants in privately-managed buildings may have no staff to ensure the tenants apartment or building is adequately maintained. Their is always the risk of such apartments becoming publicly- funded slum housing.

According to the Chronicle, Pathways costs $11.5 million to house 450 people. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic houses over 1000 formerly homeless persons for $5.5 million, or less than half the budget of Pathways.

Not to toot our own horn (I am the Clinic’s Director), but our program preceded Pathways, is much less expensive per person housed, and serves double the number of homeless persons in a city with far fewer homeless people. Yet Pathways is touted by the Chronicle on its front page for “bucking the conventional wisdom” and being a model that San Francisco should follow.

Reach your own conclusion about the Chronicle’s motives in choosing which homeless programs to promote.

Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan turned to his favorite quote machine, Bush homeless czar Phillip Mangano, for confirmation of Pathway’s genius. And once again Fagan failed to challenge the Bush mouthpiece over the devastating budget cuts the President is seeking in affordable housing.

It is Chronicle stories like this that leave one wondering whether it would be better for the paper not to cover homelessness at all.

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