Super Bowl Cleanup: A Q&A With San Francisco's Homeless Czar

Super Bowl Cleanup: A Q&A With San Francisco's Homeless Czar

Why you should care

Because homelessness isn’t super. 

Should they stay or should they go? Better question: Where should they go?

Once known for its hospitality to the homeless, San Francisco has been clamping down on its transient population. The latest? A relocation of 24 homeless people to make room for a “Super Bowl City.” Though the game will be in nearby Santa Clara, a million people are expected to descend on San Francisco proper this weekend. While 24 may seem a small fraction of the city’s estimated 7,000 homeless, many others have alleged they’ve been victims of a Super Cleanup. The city denies those allegations, and adds that it pushed the 24 relocated persons to the top of the waiting list of a popular shelter.

Is all the homeless hubbub overblown? Sam Dodge, the city’s newly appointed “homeless czar,” says it is. Dodge, 40, is the mayor’s top adviser on homelessness issues, and he brings to the role a host of lefty, man-of-the-people experience, from six years at a tenants’ rights organization in the Tenderloin to a homeless-reduction group in New York. Plus, oh yeah, some times working on a friend’s hops farm in Oregon. We met Dodge in his tiny ground-floor office at San Francisco’s City Hall to talk about the Super Bowl, how tech money can change everything and ending homelessness. An edited version of the conversation follows.

OZY: Super Bowl 50. First thoughts?

Sam Dodge: Too much press. There are a lot of journalists in town, and it’s an easy story.

OZY: And what about those claims of clearing out the homeless?

S.D.: Look, we had to make sure that people were going to be OK and that we had good options for people in some discrete areas where there was going to be some conflict. I’m very happy to say that we were able to do that. And our efforts around our new department, the Navigation Centers, revamping our homeless outreach efforts and bringing on 529 new units of supportive housing last year are all just part of our ongoing effort to experiment, redouble and think deeply about how we can serve best those least among us. The Super Bowl is the only weird thing in that. And it’s going to come and go. Really, it’s just a few weeks.

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Sam Dodge inside San Francisco City Hall

Source Connor Radnovich / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

OZY: Is the Super Bowl all bad?

S.D.: The Super Bowl isn’t for me, but it’s important that we live in a society that can tackle injustice and homelessness — and also can enjoy life and have a party. We won’t get there by just wringing our hands. It’s part of the reason to do this work, so everyone can enjoy life. When you think about a minimal, decent life that we should provide one another in the richest nation in the world, it should include housing. No one should have to live on the concrete or pop up a tent on Division Street.

OZY: How are you thinking about this new role?

S.D.: People are always telling me I have the hardest job. But no, this is a beautiful job. I get to work with people who are able to maintain their humanity through very difficult circumstances and end their homelessness. It’s solvable. We have the answers; we just need the chance to implement them. And the funding.

OZY: OK, so you need more money. Where’s the tech money when it comes to homelessness?

S.D.: We had an anonymous $3 million donation to open the Navigation Center last year in the Mission. It allowed us to do things we wouldn’t normally do and captured everyone’s attention. That’s what inspired the mayor to go with me on the new department for homelessness and do this kind of more radical, fundamental change. When funders are thinking about how they want to change the world, I would just put that $3 million against $3 million they’re spending in other places. I mean, this is really changing our world here in San Francisco.

I’ve actually had a few different founders and big investors from Silicon Valley come and ask me about what can really make the difference. Intuitively, it fits into a lot of people’s mindset in Silicon Valley — problems and solutions and figuring out how to get the two to marry up. It’s a missed opportunity and there could be a lot more leadership. Like cheaper modular housing using shipping containers. I had a week recently where I had four different people come in and think they had the original idea of shipping-container housing. If you married up all these things, we could do some awesome stuff.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of time Dodge spent on his friend’s hops farm.

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