Hugs: The Secret Weapon of San Francisco's Homeless Czar
Sam Dodge helps San Francisco respond to homelessness in the city by going out and talking with those who need the city's help the most.
Walking down Turk Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, Sam Dodge is optimistic. The number of homeless encampments is down, thanks in part to efforts by the city, and in part to construction that has pushed them elsewhere.
Dodge greets a few of the people sitting on the wide sidewalk, some with goods for sale in front of them, and asks if there is anything they need. He walked from his office at City Hall to check on reports of encampments.
Many refer to Dodge as the homeless czar of San Francisco. As the director of the mayor’s office of HOPE (Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement), his five-person team oversees the mayor’s response to homelessness in the city.
Dodge keeps an eye on the streets, regularly checking in on areas where the homeless live, so he can be in tune with current needs when he meets with government officials, community members, and the mayor.
Tilden Porter sits outside a temporary shelter in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. Porter arrived at the shelter when it opened and will stay until it closes as he waits to get into senior housing. The shelter allows people to come and go freely once they're checked in, which has proved valuable to the residents.
In the United States, seventy percent of the country’s homeless population has shelter every night and thirty percent sleep on the streets. In San Francisco, the opposite is true: seventy percent sleep on the streets. This means the homeless are a very visible presence in San Francisco.
Dodge frequently uses the statistic that California has twelve percent of the nation’s population but twenty percent of the nation’s homeless to demonstrate the scale of the homeless issue.
Homeless individuals take shelter at Saint Boniface Church in San Francisco. The church is open during the day for homeless people to sleep in its pews through the Gubbio Project.
Rising property values in San Francisco have kept rent prices among the most expensive in the country, making it especially difficult to find affordable housing for the homeless. Dodge is not deterred.
“We can end homelessness,” he said. “This is a problem that we know the solutions to.”
"I love it here," Terrence Smith said outside a temporary shelter. The shelter on Pier 80 in the Dogpatch neighborhood has a more relaxed environment than others in the city.
Historically, San Francisco has operated differently than larger cities, some of which have departments of homeless services with staffs in the hundreds. Specific issues in the city are handled separately by their corresponding departments, with no one department overseeing everything.
The HOPE office attempts to coordinate all of the government offices in addition to community groups and homeless needs.
“We’re in the same boat as most communities, where the need just overwhelms the resources that we have” Dodge said. “We try to do really creative and good work, but we end up not making as much progress as we wish we could.”
That structure is about to change. Beginning in July, the city will start a new chapter by forming its first Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which will coordinate most services for the homeless and allow all of those services to work together.
During his walking tours of the city, Dodge regularly embraces homeless and formerly homeless friends, kneels down to talk, holds their hands, and listens to their stories.
“These are our family members, these are our neighbors, these are people that we have a responsibility for and we’re leaving them out on the street to suffer and that’s not alright,” said Dodge. “That’s not alright with me and it’s not alright for a growing majority of people in America.”