S.F. pays $61,000 a year for one tent in a site to shelter the homeless. Why?

San Francisco Chroncile, March 4, 2021

By Trisha Thadani


San Francisco is paying $16.1 million to shelter homeless people in 262 tents placed in empty lots around the city where they also get services and food — a steep price tag that amounts to more than $61,000 per tent per year.


The city has created six tent sites, called “safe sleeping villages,” since the beginning of the pandemic to get vulnerable people off crowded sidewalks and into places where they have access to bathrooms, three meals and around-the-clock security. The annual cost of one spot in one site is 2½ times the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.


City leaders are under enormous pressure to address the city’s swelling homeless population, which has become more worrisome and visible amid the pandemic as traditional shelters have had to cut their capacity and other services have been disrupted. But several officials said Wednesday that the tent program — which is not eligible for federal reimbursement — is staggeringly expensive and must be re-examined, especially amid the $650 million budget deficit that San Francisco projects over the next two years.


“It’s eye-popping, and we need to understand why that is,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who proposed legislation last fall that would force the city to create more shelter options, like safe sleeping villages. “We have to find a way to have exits from the streets. But we need them to be more cost-effective than the safe sleeping program that the city has been running.”


The $16.1 million allocated for the safe sleeping program in the current budget is a fraction of the more than $300 million spent annually on homeless services. A 2018 ballot measure will probably raise an additional $250 million to $300 million per year.


The average per-night cost — $190 — is $82 less than what the city pays to shelter someone in its homeless hotel program. But unlike the hotel program, the tent sites are not eligible for federal reimbursement. According to city data, 314 people live in 247 tents. Fifteen spots are open.


The hotel program, which provides four walls, a bed and private bathroom, costs about $21 million a month. The majority of the costs will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


The tent sites are not eligible for federal reimbursement because they are considered a group shelter, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the interim director of the homeless department, said at a budget committee hearing Wednesday.


Stewart-Kahn noted that the city had to scramble to create other options for the homeless as indoor shelters were closing early in the pandemic.


She said officials did not have time to do a more thorough contract bidding process, which may have lowered operating costs. The sites are also on empty lots around the city — including outside of City Hall and at a City College parking lot South of Market — which required water and electrical hookups, along with around-the-clock security.


Stewart-Kahn said the department is “conducting an analysis” on the tent program and figuring out how it can move forward with the program.


The city — which originally thought the program would be reimbursed by FEMA — has paid for it through a combination of state grant money, the city’s general fund and money from a 2018 business tax, the department said Wednesday.


The conversation on the tent program came during a committee hearing on the department’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years. Mayor London Breed asked all departments to slash budgets by at least 7.5% to fill a $650 million deficit, which was largely caused by the pandemic. The homelessness department said that it was able to comply with the mayor’s request, while also maintaining current service levels.


The department’s proposal particularly frustrated Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Shamann Walton, who wanted more funding for an RV Navigation Center, where people who live in cars can park overnight and access services. Wednesday’s conversation was a window into the tough choices that city leaders will likely have to make over the next few months as they try to close the deficit, or until the federal government provides more financial assistance.


“I understand the motivation to create (safe) sleeping space during this COVID-19 crisis,” Safaí said. “But we really need to dive deep to see if this a sustainable model ... without any federal reimbursement.”


Some tent sites have rankled nearby residents, who have complained about blight and drug use. But those living at the sites have embraced them, as have advocates and city leaders who say they’re better than makeshift encampments of tents on sidewalks.


One site at 33 Gough St., a City College parking lot in SoMa, was quiet on a recent afternoon as people ambled in and out. Several evenly spaced tents were propped up on wooden blocks to help them stay relatively dry during the recent winter storms.


The security guards personally knew many of the people who walked in. They screened everyone for COVID-19 symptoms with a temperature check and reminded people to keep their masks on at the site.


A young man who lived at the site said it was still dramatically better than living on the street, even though his tent was battered by wind the night before. At the site he has food and security guards looking out for him, and he also knows that if he leaves his stuff will probably be safe.


Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the city’s Coalition on Homelessness, said the city made the right decision at the beginning of the pandemic to create the tent program as quickly as possible. She said many homeless people even prefer the sites to traditional shelters, as a tent gives them more privacy than a cot in a large room.


But, moving forward, she said she would not support expanding the program at the current price. Instead, she said, the city should invest that money in more stable options, like housing subsidies.


“Having people in tents creates a natural block of the spread of the virus,” Friedenbach said. “But we do not think that a tent is a permanent solution to homelessness.”


Mandelman said he’s still working on his legislation, which would force the department to figure out how many shelter spaces it needs to be able to offer a spot to everyone sleeping on the street. There is no set plan on how to pay for it.


“I’m not ideologically wedded to safe sleeping sites if we can come up with something better,” he said. “But I haven't found that yet.”


Indoor shelters can cost millions of dollars to construct and operate, while affordable housing can cost at least $700,000 a unit. Both can take years to build in San Francisco.


Still, despite the millions of dollars spent on the tent program, many people are sleeping on the streets every night.


Outside 33 Gough St. on the recent afternoon, a woman with abscesses on her face walked up to the security guards and asked whether there was room for her inside. The guard politely told her that the site was full, and that she should try reaching out to the Homeless Outreach Team to find a spot elsewhere.


The woman sighed and shuffled away.

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