The Communities of Opportunity (COO) initiative marked one of the first times in decades that San Francisco made a concerted effort to address the long-term neglect and poverty in its southernmost neighborhoods. The program started under the direction of Dwayne Jones, a dynamic leader with the chops to pull it off. Five years later, Jones has moved on, and COO could become another broken promise.
It was a still-sunny evening recently, and the Alice Griffith Opportunity Center was buzzing with activity. The community center was one of the first tangible things residents of this isolated and poverty-stricken housing development saw come to fruition when Communities of Opportunity began almost five years ago. The meeting that night was for a group of budding female entrepreneurs who want to get their businesses off the ground, create business plans, and capitalize on the City and County of San Francisco’s micro-loan program, something most of the seven women in the room would never have thought about two years ago. The group leader, Katie Perry, is long-time neighborhood resident who is committed to assisting these women in taking their kitchen- and living room-based businesses to the next level. That night, Perry helped the group focus their ideas and get them on paper, which is new for all of these women, some of whom barely graduated from high school and others who, for a variety of reasons, dropped out. None of them ever thought they would or could own a business, and COO changed that for them.
San Francisco’s southeast sector is comprised of three neighborhoods, Bayview Hunters Point, Potrero Hill and Visitacion Valley, and is home to the city’s poorest and most disenfranchised residents. In the late 1940s, the area was home to a bustling African-American population, and in the ’60s it became part of the President Johnson’s Model Cities program, which was the big gun in that administration’s War on Poverty. Twenty years later, that turned into the Regan administration’s War on Drugs. Somehow, both those wars left San Francisco’s southeast sector poorer and its residents more drug-addicted as they attempted to muddle through the hard times and recessions that seemed to hit them the hardest.
By 2007, more than 18 percent of the residents in the area earned incomes at 50 percent or more below the federal poverty line, which was more than triple the state and double the city average. While less than 5 percent of the city’s population lives here, it makes up two-thirds of San Francisco’s poverty rate. Still a mostly African-American community, the southeast sector is also home to four of the city’s worst and most notorious public housing developments, where a high percentage of families plagued by long-term generational poverty live. It is on these neglected streets and dilapidated developments that COO focuses its efforts. A place-based strategy, the idea behind Communities of Opportunity was to bring resources and opportunities directly to residents while at the same time facilitating systemic change in government and the agencies that worked in the neighborhoods.
COO’s strategies are unique in how they address long-term, generational poverty not only because the initiative came out of city government, but also because it uses an array of resources to fund and implement its activities. COO sought to act as a catalyst that creates opportunities through collaboration and transformation. A part of the goal was not to become another service provider, but to corral and channel existing resources to reduce duplication and better target them to the community.
As with many anti-poverty strategies, the initiative had to find ways to overcome decades of community mistrust. Residents had seen administrations come and go and leave behind little more than a trail of broken promises. Skepticism was high, but one thing the initiative had on its side was then-Director Jones’ reputation for getting things done. One of the residents, Adreinne Kennedy, said that she was wary at first, until she began seeing her neighbors going to work and the physical changes in her development, Alice Griffith. “Now, I send my kids and grandkids to Heritage Camp [the summer program sponsored by COO that served more than 500 youth each summer] and come to meetings. There is less shooting, and I don’t see as many kids on the block. I ain’t saying it has stopped, but it’s definitely better,” said Kennedy.
COO leveraged more than $50 million in public and private funds to address the structural and cultural factors that contribute to long-term generational poverty. That is one of the innovations of COO. It acknowledges that poverty has both structural and cultural causes, and that to eliminate poverty it must address these causes. COO also understands that in many instances institutional racism plays a part in how poverty plays out in communities and has made a concerted effort to address this in its discussions with other city departments who are major players in how COO does its work.
Loosely modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, COO began its work by identifying city departments that had some contact with public housing residents and then worked with them to identify the families most in need. By the end of year two, COO had not only harnessed the resources of city departments like the Human Services Agency, the Department of Children and Families, and Juvenile Probation (all of which were spending significant amounts of money in the target areas and in some instances duplicating services), but had also leveraged funds from a constellation of foundations interested in government system change. The goal was to streamline how these departments worked with families and make better use of their resources. They also wanted to connect the efforts of the community-based organizations working in the neighborhoods and provide them with a way to coordinate their efforts within the targeted housing developments. Finally, they knew that they had to mobilize the 2,600 families they identified as being the most significantly impacted by generational poverty.
COO categorized three types of families: those who were in crisis, those who were fragile and those who were stable. Their goal was to move families at the bottom tier to the top and create a network of stable families who could serve as examples and role models for their peers. When talking to residents, it is obvious that they have come to believe that COO is a viable option that can assist them in their efforts to create stable environments for themselves and their families.
Some, like Lottie Titus, who was at first critical of another program and more promises, is hoping that now that Jones is gone, COO won’t evaporate, too. Titus had been active in the community for years, serving on her Tenants Association and working on local committees. She raised her children in public housing and is now helping to raise her grandchildren there as well. Titus says at first there was a lot of doubt and that people “were skeptical but eager. They wanted jobs and school, and COO brought in viable options about how to address barriers to getting those things.” Titus, who lives in Harbor View, one of the city’s most infamous developments, says she is seeing changes. “One of the biggest issues was eviction and back rent. COO’s worked with the Housing Authority to give us the Rental Assistance Program, and it’s helping people get their rent up and stay current,” she said.
Five years later, Titus is one of the residents who believed COO could really make a difference and that it was making inroads. A survey of residents found that more than 80 percent were more than satisfied with COO and its work. Like any initiative of this scope, COO has its detractors – those who believe it is not doing anything and that those getting the benefits of its opportunities are somehow a chosen few or that in five years there is little or no demonstrated success.
In a phone interview not long after his departure last month, Jones emphasized that the strategy was not designed as a Band-Aid or fast fix. COO is a long-term strategy: “You cannot correct decades of impoverishment in a few years. This is going to take time and government, and the community needs to understand that. You can’t say it’s not working because two, three or four years later families are still in poverty. It took more than 40 years to get here, and it’s going to take a long-term commitment to turn it around.” That, he said was one of his biggest challenges.
In a society that wants it now, the challenge is in getting people to understand that to work, COO must be institutionalized and entrenched in the systems that helped create the problems. Last year, much of what the initiative did was try and identify departments and agencies to take on parts of the solutions that make sense for them and encourage them to own those segments over the long term. “You can build a building, but you need someone to manage it. You don’t want any one group or entity to take on the beast, just a piece of it, and unfortunately, there weren’t many takers,” said Jones in a metaphor that speaks to the overall paralysis that is inherent in poverty whether you are the policy maker, the service provider or the end user. Jones explained, “Part of the currency of poverty is apathy. People at all levels get frustrated and give up.” His fear is that now that he is gone, COO’s achievements will become a part of the tattered tapestry of unrealized dreams for Bayview Hunters Point and the city of San Francisco.
San Francisco Human Services Agency
U.S. Census 2000
COO Resident Satisfaction Survey