‘Everything was a battle’: S.F. homelessness nonprofit leader leaves Bay Area as cost of living soars

The futility and hypocrisy simply became too much, he said in a series of phone interviews from his new home on the East Coast.

“It’s a beautiful city,” he said about San Francisco. “But it’s fraudulent. We are a fraudulent city.”

That’s a big charge for a little city, but he has a point. San Francisco and the wider Bay Area pride themselves on being progressive, welcoming, equitable and compassionate, but fail to live up to those ideals.

Lerner is the first to admit his family has it better than many, but they still couldn’t make the Bay Area work.

Lerner for three years led At the Crossroads, a small nonprofit that seeks to help homeless youth build successful lives. His husband, a Black man, spent his career as a paramedic before becoming a real estate agent for more money and less stress. They adopted a biracial son, now 13, out of foster care.

They should be the sort of family San Francisco and the wider Bay Area would like to keep and help thrive, but they didn’t feel that way.

“Everything was a battle,” Lerner said.

When they outgrew their tiny Oakland home, they started house-hunting and found they could maybe — even with Lerner’s $135,000 salary — buy a house in Concord, nowhere near his job in San Francisco.

They couldn’t find a consistent therapist or solid educational support for their son, who has special needs. They wondered why their high property taxes paid for “systems so woeful,” Lerner said. And when they spent time in San Francisco, Lerner’s husband asked where all the Black people were.

And as the middle class gets squeezed out, the city’s homelessness crisis grows worse, the income inequality gap grows wider, and wealthy neighborhoods get to block homeless services and affordable housing, leaving the Tenderloin and South of Market to bear the brunt of both. People sleep in tents without access to bathrooms and water fountains near multimillion-dollar penthouses. Homeless people who do move inside often deal with crumbling buildings racked with cockroaches and violence. And this is progressive?

“Being progressive means progress, reform, seeking greater economic and social justice,” Lerner said. “Our city has been the antithesis to this in many ways. Leaders ultimately have to take responsibility for this reality.”

Lerner said he joined Mayor London Breed on a Zoom call for homeless service providers early in the pandemic and voiced his concerns about underpaid nonprofit workers. Lerner said he asked the mayor to describe her vision for addressing the city’s lack of affordability.

“Her response was basically that we are a city with very limited land, and at the end of the day, it’s just going to be an expensive city,” he said.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed, said she has consistently pushed for more housing to bring prices down, but has often been stymied by the Board of Supervisors. She’s now backing a charter amendment intended for the November ballot that would streamline and hasten the building of 100% affordable housing complexes, teacher housing and projects that include 15% more below-market rate units than currently required. The majority of supervisors repeatedly opposed Breed’s attempt to get the same policies passed through legislation.

The current pace of housing production of all types is pathetic. This week, six years after a developer agreed to donate 180 Jones St. to the city as part of a bigger housing deal, the Board of Supervisors approved building 70 affordable units there. While construction should start soon, it will probably be at least eight years from the original deal being struck to tenants moving in.

Meanwhile, the city’s cost of living soars, and the frontline workers charged with solving San Francisco’s biggest crises — homelessness, drug addiction and untreated mental illness — are vastly underpaid.

One of San Francisco’s most glaring inequities, as Lerner pointed out, is that City Hall gives its employees healthy salaries and generous benefits and pensions while contracting with nonprofits to do the on-the-ground work for much less. Lerner gave his private donors the hard sell and was able to raise his employees’ salaries somewhat, but other nonprofits that rely more on city funding can’t do that.

I wrote in 2018 about Homeless Outreach Team workers making so little, they live paycheck to paycheck themselves and quickly burn out. Back then, the entry level hourly rate was $23.19. Four years later, the city has raised that pay by a whopping $1.29. More experienced outreach workers, to the city’s credit, can earn up to $33.72 per hour. There should be 77 outreach workers, but there are currently 11 vacancies.

Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the department is undergoing “a great deal of equity analysis” about pay in the nonprofit sector.

Vitka Eisen, president and CEO of HealthRight 360, which provides care to homeless people and those addicted to drugs, said the pandemic-fueled labor shortage coupled with the city’s low pay have made hiring harder than ever. Her organization has a 35% vacancy rate in San Francisco, meaning treatment beds go empty because there’s nobody to staff them. She said someone with the same qualifications in mental health or drug treatment can find a city job for 45% more pay. In fact, the city just hired more than 200 behavioral health workers after cutting through red tape, which shows it can staff some of these jobs.

Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House, which provides shelter and services to homeless people, said his staffers earn around $45,000 to $55,000 a year and commute from as far as Stockton and Vacaville. He agreed adamantly with Lerner’s assessment of San Francisco failing to live up to its progressive ideals.

“The reputation doesn’t align with the reality,” he said.

A new controller’s report showed that San Francisco spends $1.2 billion on 600 nonprofit service providers annually to work on homelessness, drug treatment and mental health — but the low wages mean high turnover and a lack of consistency for clients. Many of the most challenging positions pay less than $20 an hour, the report found.

Lerner said the city is telling its nonprofit workers “they don’t deserve to own their own homes, they don’t deserve to live in the city, and they don’t deserve to take a nice vacation once a year.”

It would seem that an audit of the nonprofits could find ways to streamline their efforts and pay their workers more, but a long-promised audit from Breed still isn’t done.

The whole picture is enough to make many people throw up their hands in frustration and leave San Francisco and its mind-boggling hypocrisy behind them. But Lerner, for one, hopes to come back when his son has completed high school.

“Maybe San Francisco can return to some semblance of itself over the next few years,” he said. “It’s home.”

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf

Article source: https://www.sfchronicle.com/sf/bayarea/heatherknight/article/Everything-was-a-battle-S-F-homeless-17172401.php

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