by Jennifer Friedenbach
Lots of folks wonder what happened to Proposition C, the initiative entitled Our City Our Home,” that was authored by the Coalition on Homelessness in conjunction with many organizations and unhoused people. The short answer is: a lot.
The long answer is that in 2018 Prop. C, which taxes corporate income at about one-half percent starting from $50 million, was sued by corporations and held up in court until 2020 when the case was won in favor of San Francisco voters. From there, the funds had to go through the City budget process as required by the charter, and then started hitting the streets.
To date, over $800 million has been released—over half is to be spent on housing, 29% on treatment, 12% on homelessness prevention and the rest on shelter. The funding has led to the purchase of six buildings that have been turned over to house formerly unhoused people and an increase in subsidies to be used in the private market. This has meant a 25% increase in housing units available to unhoused households, or 2,474 slots. However, there is still a long way to go on spending down the housing funds. There are 600 more housing subsidies and 200 new units for families, youth and adults that have yet to become operational. Over the next year we should see several thousand more folks having the opportunity to exit homelessness.
The treatment investments have led to 132 more treatment beds and seven street outreach teams. Unfortunately, hundreds of additional treatment beds have been slow to roll out as overdose rates—while having decreased slightly—continue to be far too high. Some examples yet to be opened include: therapeutic beds for women, residential treatment beds and a whole lot of other innovative modalities that meet the diverse needs of unhoused folks with substance use and mental health challenges.
Spending on shelter started after the lawsuit victory. Mayor London Breed, who actively opposed Prop. C, banked on the corporations and business associations winning the lawsuit and started using general funds to expand shelter by adding 1,000 beds. About 500 beds were added, and once the lawsuit won, that funding was used to take over the annual funding of those beds. Another 521 shelter beds were then added post-lawsuit. These include tent villages, tiny homes, safe parking, navigation center beds and hotel rooms.
Preventing homelessnes is an often overlooked, but critical, intervention in homelessness. Last year, for every one person who got housed, five new people became homeless. Prevention typically includes rental assistance, but can also include other forms of financial assistance such as auto repair or replacement of stolen tools so individuals can continue work. To date, Prop. C dollars have been used to keep 3,600 households from being displaced and becoming homeless.
Not only have these funds meant that many people have the opportunity to leave homelessness behind, but collectively this has meant we have not seen an increase in homelessness in San Francisco. According to the last point-in-time count, conducted in February 2022, San Francisco’s number dropped a tiny bit, in stark contrast with surrounding counties that saw massive jumps in homelessness. But we still have far too many people on the streets, and a long way to go.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s current economic situation means the annual amount of funds coming in through the tax is anticipated by the Controller’s Office to decrease. In the first couple years, about $340 million came in, and that number is expected to drop to about $270 million in coming years. This means less funding and reductions to the investment plan. That said, if homelessness is a priority for San Francisco, the City can replace those funds with General Fund dollars to save programs. This city continues to be an affluent one. The Mayor has refused to put any money into homelessness beyond the money coming from the same fund she opposed, but there have to be deeper investments to make this real. This funding can come by scaling back or eliminating wasteful spending—such as the Healthy Streets Operation Center that sends over a dozen City staff out to homeless encampments twice daily to move homeless people from block to block. Opening housing to those being displaced, or preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place, is a much better use of funds. These decisions will be made in the budget process in the spring.