Meet the guy in charge of tackling San Francisco's homeless crisis

Jeff kositsky san franciscoYouTube/San Francisco Super Bowl 50 Host CommitteeSan Francisco Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing Director Jeff Kositsky

In May 2016, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced that Jeff Kositsky, a long-time fixture in the city’s non-profit sphere, would be the first director of the city’s brand-new
Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
Kositsky has his work cut out for him: As of the city’s last count in 2015, San Francisco had 6,686 homeless people, up from 6,436 in the previous study done in 2013.

Meanwhile, San Francisco is in the middle of a full-on housing crisis — forcing many families into substandard living situations, while the specter of eviction looms large.

It’s probably not a fair rap, but lots of San Franciscans pin the blame on the city’s booming tech industry, which has led to an influx of young, well-paid workers. For the last several years, tensions between tech and the people of the city have run high.

But Kositsky tells Business Insider that the tech scene have been strong and consistent partners in San Francisco’s fight against homelessness, with tech companies, programmers, engineers, and executives all jumping in to offer their time, talent, and, of course, cash.

“There are many ways these companies can help,” Kositsky says.

It’s help that Kositsky is more than happy to accept. In fact, Kositsky says that he’s taken a lot of inspiration from the city’s tech community as he works to uphold Mayor Lee’s promise to house 8,000 people before his term ends in 2020.

That inspiration extends to things like building better software to serve San Franciscans in need, which is where that talent comes in. But it’s also influencing Kositsky’s philosophy — he says you might even see the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing raise a round of donations and grants like a startup might raise a round of investment capital.

“As an individual, I’ve drawn inspiration from the energy I feel working with people in the tech sector,” Kositsky says.

Two-year lag

In his previous job as executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit Hamilton Family Center, Kositsky earned a reputation for being a conduit between the tech sector and public service — Hamilton has worked with companies like Google, Twitter and Salesforce on education and housing initiatives.

Those collaborations have helped Kositsky realise he could apply the lessons of the tech industry to building software for public service. In a lot of ways, they’re solving the same problems.

“I don’t think it’s any different in the public sector and in the private sector,” Kositsky says.

For instance, the statistics on San Francisco’s homeless population cited above come from a study that San Francisco is required to do every two years by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s better than nothing, but it’s not exactly the real-time view into customer habits enjoyed by, say, Uber.

Dick Costolo Ed LeeJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesSan Francisco mayor Ed Lee and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo celebrated the grand opening of Neighbour Nest, Twitter’s 4,000 square foot technology learning center for homeless and poverty stricken families on May 20, 2015.

“We had a two-year lag, even as we looked at data,” Kositsky says.

That’s a problem when you’re trying to solve an ever-evolving problem like homelessness. And so, Kositsky sees a huge opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. One of his big projects is software that he calls a “coordinated entry and assessment system,” also known as a “navigation system.”

The “navigation system” will be an iPad app, given to Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing workers, that lets clients fill out one single form and immediately enroll in multiple benefit and assistance programs.

“What services they get aren’t going to be based on what line they got in, but on the services they need,” Kositsky says.

In other words, the department’s clients don’t have to sit in DMV-style lines all day for each individual program. And Kositsky’s team gets an unprecedented look, in real time, into who’s applying for help, where, when, and which programs are most popular and helpful.

Power and responsibility

As Kositsky’s team works on the navigation system and other projects in the works, he says that the tech industry has been generous with its time.

Certain unnamed tech companies have gone so far as to lend engineers for a few hours or days to help the city vet new technologies and contractors, to make sure they’re making wise purchasing decisions, he says.

Those same companies are helping advise on how best to engage with their peers in the tech industry, which may well include a startup-like fundraising process to fund the development of the navigation system software.

But Kositsky wants to be clear: whatever tech companies have done to contribute to the homeless problem, he doesn’t take their support for granted. “I don’t feel like any particular sector should be held responsible for solving any social problem,” Kositsky says.

It’s up to corporations and citizens alike to decide which issues they care about, and support those causes in whatever ways they find to be most appropriate. It’s Kositsky’s job to put donated resources to work in the most efficient and logical ways possible, whether they come from the tech industry, healthcare, financial, or whatever else.

The other thing Kositsky wants people to know is that despite the city’s historical struggles with the issue of homelessness, San Francisco is taking big steps in tackling this crisis, not least with his own appointment in this role. And while technology certainly isn’t the whole story there, it definitely has a role to play.

“People think that there’s no hope and everything’s bad, but that’s not the case,” Kositsky says.

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