At a recent meeting of the Rules Committee, supervisors and other participants lauded the qualifications of applicants to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board—a panel of homeless advocates that advises on city policy and approves federal awards to local organizations.
But they also voted to advance an appointee who, if approved, presents what looks like a conflict of interest: the appointee’s organization receives funding from the same budget the board approves. And that may raise larger questions around oversight of homelessness policy in San Francisco, according to two supervisors.
“In my mind, it reinforces the problem of not having balanced representation,” on local boards advising on homeless policy, said Sup. Rafael Mandelman, who sits on the rules committee.
The appointee in question, Mary Kate Bacalao, is policy director at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit serving homeless families that received $903,853 from San Francisco’s continuum of care program in fiscal year 2021, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. She also co-chairs the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, a coalition that lobbies the city for funding. Established by the federal government, the continuum of care system provides federal funds for rehousing programs run at the local level.
The Local Homeless Coordinating Board is the lead entity for San Francisco’s continuum of care, and one of its primary functions is to rank and approve funding applications from local nonprofits, which are then consolidated into a budget request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the fiscal year 2021, local organizations were awarded $51 million through this process.
Bacalao defended her eligibility for the seat in an emailed statement to The Standard on Monday, pointing out that Erick Brown, whose seat she applied to fill, works at Catholic Charities and was also in a position to award his organization federal funding.
“There would be no particular advantage or benefit to Compass in regards to Compass receiving any [continuum of care] funds,” Bacalao said. “It is in SF’s best interest to maximize the amount of CoC funds that the community receives, so there is no conflict.”
The full Board of Supervisors will vote on Bacalao’s appointment on Tuesday.
According to rules listed on the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s website, members of the board must recuse themselves from voting if there is a conflict of interest. Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu, pointed The Standard to a federal statute which dictates that any continuum of care board member may not participate in discussions or decisions concerning the award of financial benefits to an organization they work for.
Mandelman said that the rules committee was aware of the conflict, but said that his colleagues moved to proceed with Bacalao’s appointment over other candidates regardless. He said it wasn’t the first time that conflicts have arisen on local boards, but painted it as part of a broader issue that spans the several committees that oversee homeless policy in the city.
“Of all the many bodies we have overseeing homelessness—LHCB, Our City Our Home Committee, Shelter Monitoring Committee—there is no place for representation from neighborhoods, small business, labor. There are a lot of folks with a strong interest in SF’s approach to homelessness,” Mandelman said. “It may be a problem that someone’s going to have to recuse herself, but the larger problem…is that there are a whole set of people who all see these issues and problems from the same vantage point.”
The homeless coordinating board requires that certain seats be held for advocates for certain population groups, such as families, and organizations serving those groups. Likewise, other boards advising on homeless policy reserve seats for advocates for certain populations, service providers or formerly homeless applicants. Adjusting those terms may require tweaking the administrative code, Mandelman added.
Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who won’t be present at Tuesday’s vote due to a family matter, called on the city attorney to draft legislation that restricts commission members from having “direct financial conflicts of interests.”
“Recusal will be absolutely necessary at a bare minimum, but we must avoid even the appearance of impropriety in order to ensure the public’s trust in government.” Stefani said.
Del Seymour, co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, pushed back on the idea that Bacalao’s conflict of interest would lead to corruption.
Seymour said that her role would make things “a little awkward,” but that it’s not unusual for these types of committees, nor would it make her job on the committee obsolete.
“Anyone who’s going to be helpful on the board has to have experience,” Seymour said. “She brings a lot of passion to the board…what happens is we won’t allow her to vote on those things.”