By: Carlos Wadkins
On Tuesday, March 21 San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors convened a special hearing for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) to present its “A Place For All” report. The department released this report last December as required by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s legislation of the same name. Since then Mandelman has been a vocal critic of the report, claiming on Twitter that it “is not a serious or feasible effort to end unsheltered homelessness” because of the high price tag attached and HSH’s insistence on an investment package which includes shelter, housing, and homelessness prevention. Mandelman continued this critique, going so far as to suggest that if HSH would not agree to make shelters the sole investment strategy for ending unsheltered homelessness then the responsibility may be shifted to the Department of Emergency Management (DEM).
After over three hours of presentations, Q and A, and public comment, how the report’s findings would impact San Francisco’s homelessness strategy remained unclear. Mandelman, rejecting the findings nearly entirely, seemed to pivot to a new demand: for HSH to move towards a new goal of opening 2,000 new shelter beds. In contrast, HSH promised to deliver a strategic plan with more manageable goals in April, maintaining a balance of investments in shelter, housing and homelessness prevention. As we await the outcome of these new developments, Tuesday’s hearing holds less importance in terms of setting tangible policy than it does in illuminating the competing visions for the future of San Francisco’s homelessness spending. Mandelman laid out his case for shifting the City’s strategy to invest primarily (if not exclusively) in expanding shelter rather than in housing or homelessness prevention programs, while HSH had to roll with the punches in response to his critiques. This bout offered a unique opportunity to match each of Mandelman’s main arguments against HSH and other presenters’ evidence at the hearing. In this article, we will attempt to present the main policy questions presented on Tuesday and the competing answers given to the board.
- Is a shelter-only Strategy the best way to solve unsheltered homelessness?
At the core of Mandelman’s critique of the “A Place For All” report was his argument that San Francisco should shift to a shelter-only investment plan. During his opening remarks to the hearing, he stated that his hope for the “A Place For All” ordinance was to shift the city’s focus away from permanent supportive housing and towards shelter. He claimed that the City would become bogged down if it continued to maintain a housing-focused policy approach, and that shelter was the cheapest, quickest, and most effective method of ending unsheltered homelessness. Why, then, did the department insist on increasing investments in housing and homelessness prevention along with shelter?
According to the department, these investments are essential to maintain flow. Put simply, San Francisco’s homelessness population is not a stable population: people are constantly entering and exiting homelessness. So HSH’s strategy depends on managing that flow – to prevent people from entering homelessness, create plentiful exits from homelessness, and temporarily shelter those who are homeless in the meantime. HSH argues that switching to a shelter-only approach would reduce unsheltered homelessness over the three-year period, but the number of homeless San Franciscans would continue to grow over the long term without flow management. After the three-year period, the City would need to continue increasing shelter capacity annually, or otherwise see its unsheltered population grow again.
The two nonprofit organizations Mandelman invited to speak before the Board—All Home and the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute—more or less agree with this general principle. In two reports released in recent years, each organization stressed the need for system flow and recommended balanced investment at each level. All Home, in particular, recommends an investment 1:2:4 model, in which for every one shelter bed created by a city, two new housing exits and housing prevention for four new households are created.
- Is HSH “ideologically biased” towards providing housing for all?
Despite HSH’s numerous arguments against a shelter-only approach, Mandelman insisted during his questioning that HSH’s refusal to fall in line was due to an “ideological bias” towards providing permanent supportive housing to every homeless person in San Francisco. However, at no point during their presentation did HSH commit to housing all unhoused people in the city. Rather, the department recommended using housing as just one part of a larger strategy to meet Mandelman’s three year deadline for ending unsheltered homelessness. Additionally, HSH’s housing investments relied only partially on City-run permanent supportive housing as part of private market subsidy and rapid rehousing programs. Permanent supportive housing, HSH argued, is the optimal solution only for the 2,700 chronically unhoused San Franciscans. Therefore, HSH claims that their proposed plan is not to house unhoused SF residents, but to create a system with manageable flow in order to comply with Mandelman’s “A Place for All” ordinance. As integral to this plan as permanent supportive housing and housing programs are, it also requires investing in 2,250 shelter beds—exceeding Mandelman’s new goal of 2,000.
- Did HSH present an “infeasible” plan?
Since the report’s initial release, Mandelman has criticized it as “infeasible” due to its large price tag. Originally, it called for $1.45 billion in investments over the next three years, a number which was reduced on Tuesday to just under $1 billion just before the hearing. Mandelman says the amount was prohibitively high due to HSH’s insistence on investing in housing as well as exorbitant shelter operating costs. He argues that by shifting to a shelter-only approach and reducing operating costs, San Francisco could end unsheltered homelessness for much cheaper. HSH, it seems, does not necessarily disagree with his claim of infeasibility.
While the department created and presented the “A Place For All” report in compliance with the legislation, it clearly recommended against following its investment plan in both the report and the presentation, Though it sounds counterintuitive, HSH argues that a singular focus on ending unsheltered homelessness in the next three years could have several negative consequences on cost efficiency. According to HSH, the plan’s tight deadline would require a 15% increase in overhead costs to hire enough staff, as well as higher than necessary shelter costs to speed along shelter expansion. The department asserts that these problems would still occur under Mandelman’s shelter-only approach, with the added consequence that the end to unsheltered homelessness would only last for the initial three year period.
On the other hand, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston disagreed with Mandelman’s characterization of the plan as infeasible. Preston said that HSH’s estimate was not “shockingly large,” especially when compared to San Francisco’s recently passed housing element, which committed to adding 46,000 new affordable units in the next eight years. Preston argued that now that HSH has a goal set, the Board of Supervisors should be scrambling to come up with the needed resources to end unsheltered homelessness.
- Is HSH’s purpose to fix San Francisco’s street conditions?
Perhaps revealing Mandelman’s true motive for insisting on shelter only, he boldly claimed in his opening remarks that the primary reason for HSH’s existence is to alleviate the poor ‘street conditions’ plaguing San Francisco. While introducing Sam Dodge, the head of DEM’s street teams who led the hearing’s first presentation, Mandelman introduced a new goal to coincide with his 2,000 shelter bed demand: to enable DEM into enacting a policy of ‘resolving’ (read: sweeping) any homeless encampment in the city within 24 hours of its existence. As Dodge implied, this plan would come up against the Coalition on Homelessness’s recent lawsuit against the City—and an injunction against the City’s illegal practices when clearing encampments.
For this claim, Preston offered another rebuttal: the department’s mandate is not to ensure clean streets nor placate business owners’ demands. This claim is backed up by HSH’s website, which declares that the department has “a singular focus on preventing and ending homelessness for people in San Francisco.” Mandelman’s thinly veiled threat to transfer responsibility over shelters from HSH to DEM, whose street teams do respond much more directly to street conditions and the complaints of business owners, perhaps belies his own realization that they are much more likely to approach policy with that focus.
- What do we make of the Place For All Hearing?
In the near future, the policy debates on display in the Supervisors’ Tuesday hearings are sure to heat up. In April, HSH will retool its strategic plan just in time to inform the City budget process, which is expected to be defined by large budget shortfalls. To add to the pressure, 2024’s election season will include races for several Supervisors’ seats and the Mayor’s office, and homelessness will surely take center-stage in those debates. In that context, that hearing could very well foreshadow how debates over homelessness policy will unfold: Mandelman’s shelter-only approach against HSH’s proposed packaged investments. The arguments and evidence presented on on that March day could be very valuable in determining whether San Francisco voters support either of these policy choices, or forge new ones of their own.