S.F. debates controversial homeless proposal to make city provide shelter to all

San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 2021

By Mallory Moench


San Francisco leaders considered a controversial — and costly — proposal Wednesday that would require the city to provide shelter for all unhoused people, which would likely mean expanding sanctioned tent encampments until enough permanent housing is available.


Dozens of advocates, residents and business owners spoke passionately for and against the proposal during an hours-long public comment at a budget committee hearing as the city grapples with worsening homelessness and debates the most effective way to tackle the crisis.


If approved, supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s “Place for All” proposal — introduced last year — would direct the city to create a plan to shelter unhoused people within four months and identify and set up sites within two years. Shelter could be tents, tiny homes or other options, although Mandelman told The Chronicle he believed the city would have to rely at first on Safe Sleeping Sites — sanctioned encampments.


Mandelman agreed with critics that the proposal “was not a solution to homelessness.” But he said that despite San Francisco’s significant investments, the city still falls short of its housing goals, evidenced by street conditions criticized by the United Nations.


“I believe a Place for All aligns with the values and sensibilities of a majority of San Franciscans who want an end to street homelessness but also believe that no person should have to sleep on the street,” Mandelman said. “I do think we need to focus more resources on policies that will actually find an alternative to the sidewalk for folks that we do not have housing for.”


The plan faced skepticism from fellow supervisors Wednesday, especially given the $61,000-per-tent cost of similar sites set up during the pandemic. Supervisor Matt Haney blasted Safe Sleeping Sites, calling them a “failed approach in so many ways” that did little to move people into permanent housing. He said the city, which created them during the pandemic, should have doubled down on moving people into shelter-in-place hotels.


Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said the city needs to focus on purchasing hotels with an “unprecedented opportunity” to do so with Prop. C, a corporate tax which will raise $250 million to $300 million per year.


Supervisor Gordon Mar said he agreed with Mandelman that there’s a need to expand shelter options until permanent housing is available. He said “there is a role for a thoughtful expansion of safe sleeping sites” but any expansion needs to be “right sized” and ensure that it doesn’t divert “precious resources and undermine our focus on permanent solutions to homelessness.”


Mandelman he was “disappointed” by the reception and said the core of the legislation is having a place where people can go — which doesn’t necessarily mean tents. His supporters — mostly business owners and residents — argued the proposal was a temporary and necessary solution given the lack of affordable housing.


Opponents said money could be better invested in rental subsidies and purchasing hotels. One caller experiencing homelessness said “we want houses, not tents.” Others feared the mandate could lead to more police enforcement of street sweeping and criticized the proposal as pacifying well-to-do residents.


Mary Kate Bacalao, director of external affairs and policy at Compass Family Services and co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, said “it’s undeniable that everyone deserves a safe place to sleep.”


“But what’s important to acknowledge is that we can’t shelter our way out of homelessness,” Bacalao said. “If we create this massive expansion in shelter that isn’t part of an overall comprehensive vision that wants to lift people out of poverty and get people inside and put them in housing, we’re creating problems over the long term.”


In the last official count in 2019, there were more than 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco. Records of homeless individuals who use city services indicate that the number throughout the year could be greater than 17,500.


With shelters scaled back in capacity 75% during the pandemic, the city is running five Safe Sleeping sites that provide some services including security, bathrooms and food. The cost is $61,000 per tent a year — 2.5 times the median rent for a one-bedroom.


The average per-night cost for the sites — $190 — is $82 less than what the city pays to shelter someone in its homeless hotel program. That program is reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the end of September.


Most of what made the sites so expensive were labor costs and scale, with a high ratio of staff to tents. Mandelman cited a city report that said if sites were scaled up, they could be run for $93 a night, less than $34,000 a year.


Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said brainstorming by the Prop C steering committee to bring down site costs have been unsuccessful.


The Bay Area Council, which analyzed the program budgets, pointed out Safe Sleeping Site costs didn’t include land, with one site leased on private land for $1.2 million. Other solutions, including Navigation Centers, shelters with services, which cost $43,000 per unit, are cheaper.


Advocates also worried the proposal would increase police enforcement sweeping encampments. Mandelman’s legislation is silent on enforcement, but he told The Chronicle there is a “reasonable expectation” it would lead to an end to street camping if people were offered another option.


Los Angeles, which has a similar crisis, had its hand forced in the direction of Mandelman’s proposal this week. A federal judge ordered the city and county on Tuesday to offer some form of shelter or housing to the entire homeless population of skid row by October, the Los Angeles Times reported. The judge argued that the city had wrongly focused on permanent housing at the expense of temporary shelter, which led to more people dying on the streets.


The budget committee approved amendments to the proposal Wednesday. The vote on whether to advance it to the full board was pushed to a later date.

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