Op-ed: Supervisor’s Sobriety Plan Adds Roadblocks to Supportive Housing 

by Jordan Davis

Five years after tenants experienced a giant leap forward in permanent supportive housing (PSH), they could suffer a gigantic leap backwards if Supervisor Matt Dorsey’s proposed legislation for “recovery housing” passes. 

At a June 18 press conference, Dorsey formally asked the City Attorney’s office to draft legislation requiring that 25% of the City’s PSH units be dedicated to sober housing. It also would align with proposed state legislation allowing up to 25% of state funding to cities for such housing and related services—effectively placing a moratorium on new PSH.  

Housing for formerly homeless people is already scarce; resources for “housing first” accommodations would be further limited under this plan.

A knowledgeable, anonymous source who doesn’t want their housing jeopardized informed me that Dorsey attempted to put it on the ballot, but could only get Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who is the co-author of this legislation, to sign on as one of the four required Supervisors to do so. Even some of the moderates, as well as the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, thought that placing the proposal on the ballot was a bridge too far. In his announcement, Dorsey said he hoped to get his colleagues’ support for his bill, even if it means accepting amendments. I find it dissonant that Dorsey, a gay man who undoubtedly was impacted by Proposition 8 in 2008, would put the rights of marginalized communities up for a vote. It’s giving pinkwashing vibes.

The San Francisco Standard article about this legislation cited a poll of tenants in Tenderloin Housing Clinic buildings in which 71% of the 450 tenants who responded to a survey said they would support sober housing. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) has over 1,900 tenants throughout its portfolio, which means less than 25% of tenants responded to the survey. THC’s methodology was questionable: Its staff administered and collected the surveys in the presence of the tenants, which didn’t guarantee confidentiality of the responses.  Also, THC Executive Director Randy Shaw, one of the largest PSH evictors in San Francisco, has been an outspoken supporter of a renewed drug war and sober housing. In addition, the survey had leading questions, and THC also runs the Central City SRO Collaborative, which is frankly a fake tenants rights group. So, I have to call BS on this survey. While there is no meaningful opposition to sober housing options, this is not the biggest priority for PSH tenants.

I also want to push back on a statement from Del Seymour, the founder of the nonprofit Code Tenderloin, in the Standard article. Seymour said he was not able to recover from addiction in a “raggedy ass SRO”—Well, this should be a call to create more scattered site supportive housing, which would place more tenants across the city where drug dealers have a harder time locating them, and would encourage recovery, whether or not there were sober housing requirements. Given the conditions many of us live in, or have lived in, and the way that PSH providers treat us, I don’t blame my fellow tenants for doing drugs or drinking.

I am also concerned about the fact that there just isn’t enough permanent supportive housing, and hobbling the creation of more PSH without sobriety requirements is going to create a logjam in the procurement of new housing. We are in a budget crunch. Where will the funding for so-called recovery housing come from? And how about funding for the shelters that will likely be more expensive to operate than permanent supportive housing?

I also am concerned about the stigmatizing language used by Dorsey, which includes referring to permanent supportive housing as “drug-permissive housing” and using the term “Recovery First.” I have written about the success of housing first in a previous article, but using that type of language undermines Housing First best practices, and ignores the fact that stable housing is the first step to recovery, and that recovery and harm reduction are not at cross purposes. I personally stopped drinking alcohol, and didn’t need sober housing to reach this goal.

Furthermore, this may lead to the Salvation Army, a nonprofit that has literally killed queer and trans homeless people through denial of services, getting more city contracts to run these sites. I can never trust them to run any part of the homelessness response system, even if they pinky swear to follow California and San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ protections. 

I also find it dissonant that the term “harm-reduction housing” is used to disparage permanent supportive housing without sobriety requirements more than the many market rate, rent-controlled or below-market-rate apartments, or even single family homes. I’m sure there are raging coke parties in Marina mansions, SOMA condos, Noe Valley duplexes, and other places, but the city has to go after our poorest tenants. This type of stigmatizing language results in real-world consequences: I have experienced stalking from those who oppose my advocacy, and this legislation is putting our lives in danger.

While the overdose crisis is real, and there are tenants in all forms of housing who struggle with substance use and who may be impacting other tenants, this legislation is not the answer. Everybody needs a chance to get into recovery, from tenants in Dorsey’s building in gentrified Mid-Market to tenants in SROs run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Subsidized sober housing should also be available.

However, I have to put my foot down and strenuously oppose dismantling Housing First and the safety net writ large to appease those who weaponize hysteria for their own ends. During a budget crunch and when we still have a lot of unhoused neighbors, we cannot be putting any roadblocks in front of more permanent supportive housing. Solutions to these crises should be vetted with tenants who aren’t under the control of PSH housing providers with their own agenda.