San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 2021
By Trisha Thadani
San Francisco’s homelessness department is pushing to continue an expensive tent encampment program that it says is crucial for keeping people off the sidewalks, despite its high price tag of more than $60,000 per tent, per year.
The city has six so-called “safe sleeping villages,” where homeless people sleep in tents and also receive three meals a day, around-the-clock security, bathrooms and showers. The city created these sites during the pandemic to quickly get people off crowded sidewalks and into a place where they can socially distance and access basic services.
The program currently costs $18.2 million for about 260 tents. Unlike the city’s homeless hotel program, the tent villages are not eligible for federal reimbursement. Some of the sites have been run by nonprofits Urban Alchemy, Dolores Street Community Services and Larkin Street Youth Services.
The department is now asking the city for $15 million in the upcoming fiscal year for a similar number of tents, which amounts to about $57,000 per tent per year. If the funding is approved, San Francisco will pay about twice the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment for people to sleep in tents for the second year in a row.
The department plans to close some sites this year, but said it will look for new ones to replace them. Officials said they plan to significantly ramp down the program in fiscal year 2022-2023, when it expects to need $5 million to fund the program.
Several supervisors said at a Wednesday budget hearing that the cost must be re-examined, especially as the city winds down its COVID-19 emergency response.
“It is a big deal to have showers and bathrooms, and I don’t dispute that,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at Wednesday’s Budget and Finance Appropriations Committee meeting. “But the cost just doesn’t make any sense.”
Gigi Whitley, the homeless department’s deputy director of administration and finance, said the bulk of the costs at the sites come from the 24-hour security, three meals a day, and the rented shower and bathroom facilities.
Whitley said she hopes the department can control costs as it takes over the program from the city’s COVID-19 Command Center.
The tent program is entirely paid for through Proposition C, a 2018 business tax measure that collects money for homeless services. The cost accounts for only a fraction of the more-than $1 billion that the city expects to spend on homelessness over the next two years, mostly due to Prop. C.
Still, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said it seemed like an “exorbitant” amount for a program that would be phased out as the COVID-19 emergency comes to an end.
The discussion comes as the city prepares to wind down its homeless hotel program, which is currently sheltering about 2,000 people. While the homeless department has promised that every hotel resident will be offered a housing placement, the city is still grappling with a tight housing market and limited shelter options for the thousands on its streets.
Shireen McSpadden, director of the department, said group shelters are still not allowed to operate at full capacity, despite Breed lifting all other COVID-19 restrictions on June 15.
The department said it is still “reviewing” federal shelter health guidelines and waiting on state public health guidance to “finalize the local shelter reopening plan and timeline.” The capacity reductions are significant: For example, there are currently only 91 guests allowed at the 200-bed Navigation Center on the Embarcadero, the department said.
Because of the shelter limitations and the upcoming closure of some hotels, McSpadden said she feels “strongly” that the city should maintain the tent program at its current level.
“We need it as just another tool in our toolkit as we bring people out of the hotels,” she said.
The board’s Budget and Finance Committee will decide whether to approve the proposal next week, before the entire budget moves to the full board for a vote. Then it will return to the mayor for her approval at the end of the summer.
Supervisor Matt Haney, chair of the committee, was also critical of the program’s cost Wednesday. He said the committee will decide next week whether it wants to reduce the money given to the tent sites and “instead direct the funds to other, more cost-effective investments to get people off the streets.”