Skip to main content

Can you fight bureaucracy with bureaucracy? This new commission is optimistic

Christin Evans (left), Sharky Laguana (center), and Whit Joaquin Guerrero (right) are recent appointees of a commission in charge of applying oversight to the San Francisco’s homeless department. | Getty Images ; Kevin Truong ; City of San Francisco

Members of a new committee overseeing SF’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing are optimistic that their recently formed watchdog panel will cut through red tape and ultimately speed up City Hall’s response to the crisis unfolding on the streets of San Francisco.

The seven-member Homeless Oversight Commission, approved by voters last November, was initially criticized by Mayor London Breed for introducing yet another layer of bureaucracy to the city’s cumbersome homelessness response. 

But some members of the newly formed oversight body—which is scheduled to meet for the first time in May—told The Standard that they hope to reduce the obstacles the homelessness department faces in quickly moving people off the street. 

“What we don’t need is another grenade landing in everyone’s lap,” said former president of the Small Business Commission Sharky Laguana. “I don’t want to tie everybody up in a lot of long meetings, and I don’t want to go on a lot of wild goose chases.”

The commission will have the power to solicit audits, establish performance standards and convene hearings to assess the effectiveness of programs run by the homelessness department. The panel is composed of three members who are appointed by the board of supervisors and four people who are appointed by the mayor. 

Laguana, who was appointed by the mayor and spoke to The Standard on behalf of himself and not the commission, said that additional oversight doesn’t need to come at the expense of efficiency.  

Laguana plans to push for a centralized data source that can help the public track the department’s successes and shortcomings. He also said that there’s a need to integrate the checks and balances that are already in place.  

In recent months, some local leaders have called for more surveillance of charities that have been accused of misusing public funds and failing to adequately serve their clients.  

For their part, some nonprofits have complained that compliance checks can be onerous and confusing, especially when working with multiple departments that each have their own processes.

“Sometimes we’re asking the same question twice,” Laguana said. “It’s coming from a good place—wanting to be a good steward of public money—but it’s […] actually having the opposite effect.”

Another appointee, Christin Evans, a small business owner and advocate for homeless people, also had concerns about the metrics that the department uses to define success. 

Evans, who supported a 2018 business tax that raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for homeless services, said she feels an obligation to ensure the money is spent appropriately.  

“To me, the most pressing performance metric is how people are being housed,” Evans said. “We really need to have a more effective flow of people moving on from shelter beds.”

Among the many urgent issues for the commission to consider is that over 900 housing units intended for homeless people are sitting vacant while people sleep on the city’s streets. 

In an emailed statement, commission appointee Whit Joaquin Guerrero said eliminating bureaucratic hoops could help address the department-wide staffing shortage contributing to these deficiencies. 

Guerrero also expressed a need for a variety of housing models to fit the needs of all homeless residents.

Some housing providers contend that the city is placing people who need a higher level of care into supportive housing programs that aren’t equipped with the mental health resources needed to reintegrate them into society.

“A ‘one-size fits all’ model of housing […] does not work for everyone,” Guerrero said. “We need to address the issues that are keeping the system from working for the people it is intended to serve.”

It remains to be seen if the commission will play a role in shaping policy, or whether they will primarily serve as watchdogs of the department.  

Analyzing the department’s upcoming five-year plan and wrapping their heads around its $635 million budget are among the first tasks that its members have to look forward to.

“It’s like a giant Rubik’s cube,” Laguana said. “San Francisco needs a win. My eye is on how do we put a win on the board.”