San Francisco Chronicle, July 16, 2021
By Trisha Thadani
For Pamela Tisdale, the amount of money that San Francisco plans to invest in homelessness — more than $1.1 billion over the next two years — is irrelevant as long as she lives in a small, temporary hotel room that has “rats galore.”
“I just want my own housing,” said Tisdale, who lives in a city-leased hotel that local officials plan to close next year. “I’m just fed up.”
As the 62-year-old struggles to a find a permanent and affordable place to live, San Francisco has never been so flush with cash to help people like her. The city’s spending on homelessness has increased dramatically over the past five years — but never like this.
That’s because the city has a combination of onetime federal and local funds to pour into homeless services. The pot also includes about $800 million from Proposition C, a controversial 2018 business tax that is finally free to use after years of being tied up in a lawsuit.
Now, advocates and city leaders say, San Francisco is in an unprecedented position to make a tangible difference on the city’s streets.
But the historic investment is also presenting the city with a tenuous question: If this doesn’t make a difference for the city’s homeless, then what will?
San Francisco has thrown significantly more money at the crisis over the past few years, but the issue has only grown. From 2016 to 2019, homelessness spending in each two-year budget swelled 83%, from about $200 million to $360 million. At the same time, the number of homeless people grew from about 6,000 to more than 8,000, a 33% increase.
Prop. C expands that spending significantly. The measure — which taxes the gross receipts on large corporations — collects about $250 million to $300 million for homeless services each budget cycle. The money in the upcoming budget, which will be finalized in August, is unusually large because it includes an extra $500 million from the past two years that was tied up in court for years due to a lawsuit over the tax.
After months of haggling over the details, the Our City, Our Home committee, which oversees the funds, reached a deal with the mayor and board last month on how to dole out the money. Among their planned investments: funding for at least 825 units of new housing, 650 rental subsidies, over 1,000 new shelter beds, about 200 tents in sanctioned sites and several new street outreach teams.
Shanell Williams, chair of the committee, said the spending plan was carefully crafted over several months with the input of more than 800 people, primarily those who are homeless or formerly homeless. She said the money will “make a huge difference.”
“We feel a lot of pressure to make some change,” she said. “San Francisco voters are very serious about this investment being spent the way it was intended.”
The deluge of money comes at a critical time for San Francisco, as the pandemic has pushed more people toward poverty and also exacerbated other maladies like mental health issues and drug addiction. While the officials don’t yet know how many more people have become homeless over the past year, it’s widely expected that the population has grown.
Now, city officials — including Mayor London Breed, who strongly opposed Prop. C in 2018 — are relying on the money to make progress on San Francisco’s most pressing crisis.
Relief, though, likely won’t come overnight, as scaling up a system that has long been understaffed and overwhelmed could take months, or even years.
Shireen McSpadden, the new director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the department has “major gaps” when it comes to contract management, fiscal oversight, and basic processes and procedures.
“We need to build the plane and continue to fly it,” said McSpadden, who joined the department in May. “That’s the pressure we’re under with this.”
For people like Tisdale, that relief can’t come soon enough.
Within the next year, she’ll have to move out of her hotel room when emergency federal funding runs out for the program. She said she was offered a studio apartment a few months ago, but it was so small that she had to “stand sideways in the kitchen.”
She’s holding out for a one-bedroom, where she can finally live comfortably after nearly 10 years of cycling between the streets, shelters, her mother’s couch and a dilapidated permanent supportive housing unit in the Tenderloin.
“I want to go somewhere that I’d be stable,” she said. “I just want to put a key in my door.”
When it comes to finding permanent housing, Tisdale could eventually benefit from Prop. C, as at least 50% of the new funds must go toward housing resources, like rental vouchers or acquiring new units. A core tenet of the ballot measure is that it must be used for creating new programs that focus on getting people off the streets, rather than bolstering existing ones.
But if Breed had her way in 2018, San Francisco would not have this money to spend from Prop. C at all. She didn’t support the measure, saying the city was already spending a tremendous amount of money on homelessness — about $300 million a year — “with no discernible improvement in conditions.”
It was a contentious campaign. The measure divided city leaders and also pitted Breed, the city’s Chamber of Commerce and some tech companies — including Twitter — against the city’s homeless advocates, nonprofits and even Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, the city’s largest employer.
Nearly three years later after Prop. C passed with 61% of the vote, perhaps no one stands to benefit more politically from the measure than Breed. Under her watch, the city will be able to fund thousands of new units of housing and several new outreach teams, and create hundreds of new mental health and drug treatment beds.
“With all this money we have to invest in homelessness, there is no way that we shouldn’t be able to be more effective,” Breed said in a recent interview.
While she is glad the city now has the extra cash — “I don’t leave money on the table” — she echoed her sentiments of 2018. In particular, she said she’s worried about the impact of all the city’s taxes on the retail industry, as well as the accountability for how the money is spent.
She also said that, without a similar investment in surrounding counties, San Francisco could attract more unsheltered people to the city. That concern is not substantiated by the city’s most recently available data, which showed that 70% of the city’s homeless in 2019 were last housed in San Francisco.
“We could use the money, and it’s great,” she said. “But, at the same time, what are the trade-offs?”
City officials are working on creating a public database to track metrics, such as how many people have been placed into housing and how many new units have been built or acquired.
Along with Prop. C, the upcoming $1 billion-plus budget also includes tens of millions of dollars in one-time funding from federal emergency assistance due to the pandemic, local bond money and the city’s general fund. The city is also expecting a chunk of money from the state, which has yet to be finalized.
Matthew Doherty, the former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, said San Francisco’s funding for homelessness is “close to unprecedented” for a city.
“It is the kind of investment that can really make a difference,” said Doherty, who now works as a consultant. “And the fact that it is an ongoing and predictable source of revenue for upcoming years, so they can plan for other investments, is not something that many communities have.”
Joe Wilson, the director of Hospitality House, a shelter in the Tenderloin, called Prop. C a “once in a generation” investment.
Yet, he still remains skeptical it will be enough.
“Is it going to solve the problem? No,” he said. “The structural conditions still exist that perpetuate homelessness and poverty in America.”
And until we address that, he said, “more will always be needed.”