Public Service Innovators -- Trent Rhorer, MPP 1996: Making Home More Than a Shelter

August 9, 2004
Molly Lanzarotta

Trent Rhorer (MPP '96) believes the city of San Francisco is setting a national example in addressing the needs of people who are homeless. Yet the local press has cast Rhorer, Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Human Services (DHS), as everything from a man who can work wonders to "a man with a target on his back" as he battles to implement "Care Not Cash," a program that fundamentally changes the way the city assists homeless individuals.

The controversial program is the result of a ballot initiative approved in 2002 by 60% of voters in San Francisco County that was blocked by repeated legal challenges. Finally implemented this spring, Rhorer believes the program is innovative and effective. During the first three months of "Care Not Cash," 176 homeless individuals moved into permanent supportive housing units.

"In San Francisco we're recognizing that a system to address homelessness can't be tied to emergency shelter, which is how local governments have responded." Rhorer says. "Care Not Cash is basically recognizing that the welfare system for single homeless adults has not been effective in getting them into permanent housing."

Critics charge that the program takes away individuals' choices since it replaces monthly cash stipends with services and permanent housing options. Rhorer agrees with this analysis, but argues, "Yes, we are taking away someone's choice of how to spend their $400 a month because the choice hasn't helped achieve self-sufficiency in their lives. A lot of individuals have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. In examining the data, individuals on average [in San Francisco County] have been on aid 36 months. Clearly getting cash aid runs counter to our mandate, which is to move people into permanency."

Rohrer also points out that the individual cash grant system has created something of a magnet: when bordering counties are paying $24 a month in assistance, and San Francisco county pays over $400, Rohrer sees serious problems in the system.

Addressing homelessness is the part of Rhorer's job that has been making news, but his responsibilities include all of San Francisco's public social service programs for low-income families, children, single adults and the elderly, involving a $500 million budget and a staff of 1,800 people. Before becoming the Executive Director of DHS in 2000, Rhorer was a policy analyst for the city government, fresh from the Kennedy School. He played a crucial role in helping the current mayor, Gavin Newsom, and the previous mayor, Willie Brown, to take a critical look at how the city delivered homeless services. This role hasn't always made him popular.

"I've been called a lot of names and had people throw things at me," Rhorer says resignedly about the many public meetings he's attended. "This is a difficult job in a politically charged environment, and there's a lot of interest in these issues. But, ultimately, I think we're restoring dignity to people's lives."

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