Mayor connects with the needy 

It was nearly seven years ago when Mayor Gavin Newsom launched his ambitious plan to end one of San Francisco’s most vexing problems: chronic homelessness.

Among other things, he created Project Homeless Connect, an event where residents can obtain food, housing, legal assistance and medical attention under one roof.

Homeless Connect has become the calling card of Newsom’s political tenure, having helped usher in a 40 percent reduction of the chronic homeless population on the streets. Today, there are some 6,500 homeless residents living in San Francisco, according to the Mayor’s Office.

On Wednesday, thousands of homeless residents will once again line Grove Street for the 37th Project Homeless Connect event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. But this one will be the last of Newsom’s term, which ends in January when he will be sworn in as California’s lieutenant governor.

Progress has been slow at times and the recession forced an increased number of families into homelessness, said Dariush Kayhan, the mayor’s adviser on homeless issues.

"We still have a long way to go, but we are on the road to achieving the goals we set out 10 years ago," Kayhan said.

San Francisco has long been criticized for its highly visible homeless population, and efforts to curb it have not always been popular. Recently, police slammed a Homeless Connect event in Golden Gate Park, saying it is counterproductive to their mission to move homeless people out of the park.

Others said the mayor has unduly politicized the issue.

"He has used the Homeless Connect to soften the image of what we think are mean-spirited sweeps of homeless people," said Bob Offer-Westort, a civil rights organizer with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. "Despite its political misapplication, some good has come from it."

Despite such criticism, the mayor recently secured more than $8 million in federal stimulus funding to help homeless families, and he is close to announcing a permanent one-stop shop giving homeless residents access to services, officials said.

More than 260 cities have replicated the Homeless Connect model.

"There is broad support for Homeless Connect and the Board [of Supervisors] has approved it since its conception," Kayhan said. "So I feel confident that given how important it is in addressing chronic homelessness, it will continue well into the future."

esherbert@sfexaminer.com

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Erin Sherbert

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