Q&A: A housing director who thinks pigs will fly

Name: Jeff Kositsky
Age: 50
City: San Francisco
Position: Director, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing

J: You are the head of San Francisco’s brand new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. What is the department’s mandate?

Jeff Kositsky: We do three things: We work to prevent homelessness, we work with people currently homeless and on the street to try to get them into either shelter or get them services — and most importantly, we help people that are homeless get into permanent housing.

Jeff Kositsky

People talk as if San Francisco has a larger homeless population than other cities, but is that really the case? Or is it just more visible?

We do a homeless census every year. It’s not perfect, but it gives us an apples-to-apples comparison, year-to-year and city-to-city. Last time the number was around 6,500 homeless people in San Francsico, about 3,500 unsheltered.

These are rough numbers, but it’s close enough. Last time we had about a 3 percent increase, but most cities had a double-digit increase. We have a big problem here, but we’ve done a better job than many other communities in recent years, though we certainly need to do even better going forward.

What are your major projects so far?

The city currently has over 6,000 units of permanent supportive housing, subsidized housing with support services for homeless individuals and families. That is the most expensive intervention. We also have a couple of long-term rent subsidy programs so that people can get a rent subsidy and help finding housing. Some of that housing is publicly owned and some is master leased from private owners (it’s either a whole building or leasing a block of units in a specific building). We have short-term rent subsidies, mainly for families to help them close the gap between current and future income; that’s mainly a one-time investment.

How did you get into this line of work?

It’s been a long journey. My dad said my first sentence was, “That’s not fair” — and I’ve been working on that ever since. I was very active in civic issues growing up. My expression of my Judaism is through the kind of work that I do. I started out working for a congressman and decided I wanted to do more on-the-ground work. In many ways all of this work is to me an expression of my desire to work for social justice.

I spent almost 10 years at a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides housing to the single adult homeless population and led an organization that works with homeless families. When the city was creating this department, they felt like I was a natural fit.

“To the stars on the wings of a pig”

I hear you have a thing for flying pigs.

It’s kind of a shanda, but I have a pig tattoo on my leg. Steinbeck had a “pigasus” stamp. The legend is that he was told he’d be a professional writer when pigs fly, so he adopted it as his totem. People say things are impossible; ending homelessness will happen when pigs fly. The other thing is it’s an earthbound animal reaching toward the stars, which reminds us to be humble even as we aspire to something greater.

My mom is not only pissed that I got a tattoo, but a tattoo of a treyf animal.

Where did you grow up? What was your family life like?

I grew up in Philadelphia. It wasn’t a poor family, but struggling working class. My great-grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. We belonged to Temple Beth Am outside Philadelphia. Got a bar mitzvah, confirmed, very involved with B’nai B’rith, my first opportunity to get leadership experience. And I’m really lucky to have had a stable household. I’m just a nice Jewish boy with a tattoo.

Are you involved with the Jewish community now?

My expression of my religion is primarily through my work. I always felt like it was part of my faith. I have two daughters, and the older one — we were living overseas for a couple years doing housing development work — my older daughter was probably 7 or 8 at the time, and she decided she wanted to have a bat mitzvah. We started talking more about Judaism, and I did my best to educate her a little. When we came back we joined a synagogue, and she just recently had a bat mitzvah. It was a reawakening for me.

Also, I had the great honor of being invited by the JCRC to go on the community leader trip to Israel, which I had never been to. That was back in April before I started in this job. I hope to stay connected and involved with JCRC. It was really a transformative experience for me.

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David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].