In 2021 and Beyond, We Need to Prioritize Helping Unhoused San Franciscans into Housing, Not Just Removing Them From Public View

On Wednesday, April 21, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman brought his “A Place For All” legislation before the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee. It was met with negative reactions from members of the committee and many of the dozens of people who gave public comment on the topic. While that reception and the decision of committee chair Matt Haney to not pass the legislation on to the full board mean that the legislation has no clear path to being passed, it is still important to understand the flaws in “A Place For All” and proposals like it. 

“A Place For All”  would  require the creation of enough safe sleeping sites and shelter within 18 months to accommodate every unsheltered person in San Francisco. While this legislation’s reliance on safe sleep sites is unique, “shelter for all” policies have been tried in several cities dating back decades as a solution to homelessness. The problem with these policies, and with “A Place For All,” is that the cost of maintaining enough shelter beds for all—which are not an exit from homelessness for any—prevents cities from investing in the permanent solutions needed to move people out of homelessness and into housing.. 

It’s easy to see how this problem would be replicated by “A Place For All.” Safe sleeping sites  made headlines earlier this year for the eye-popping amount they’ve cost the city since the program started last year: around $61,000 per tent per year, according to the city’s department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. This cost is well over the cost of a private market subsidy with support services for a single household, which is about $40,000 per year, and it’s over two times the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. During the April 21 meeting and in an op-ed touting the legislation, Supervisor Mandelman argued that these costs were grossly inflated and could be reduced through “better planning and economies of scale.” According to the City’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report on “A Place For All,” safe sleeping sites are currently run at a full-service cost of $193 per tent per night (about $70,000 per year), but could be run at a minimal-service cost of $93 per tent per night (about $34,000) because Supervisor Mandelman’s legislation does not require on-site medical, clinical, and social services. However, even at this lower cost, the BLA estimates that this legislation would cost about $169 million annually—not including one-time installation costs—if applied to all unsheltered San Franciscans (using the report’s high-end  estimate of 5,000 people based on the 2019 SF Point-in-Time count). At the current full-service rates, the BLA estimates it could cost over $346 million. 

While “A Place For All” carries this hefty projected price tag, the legislation did not contain any new funding sources to achieve its requirements, so the required $169 million would come out of the existing homelessness budget. In other words, “A Place For All” would replace many of the long-term solutions the city is currently funding with safe sleep sites. These existing solutions include community based recommendations from the Our City, Our Home Oversight Committee on how to spend the over $300 million in Proposition C funds, 50% of which must be invested in housing. They also include the Mayor’s Homeless Recovery Plan, which aims to place 4,500 people into permanent supportive housing and acquire 1,500 new units over the next two years, alongside “Flex Pool” subsidies, which help unhoused people access private housing. In his April presentation to the Budget and Finance Committee, Supervisor Mandelman argued that these permanent solutions could be achieved alongside his legislation. However, without the introduction of any new source of funding, “A Place For All” would trade thousands of potential units of permanent housing for thousands of tents with few housing exits and nothing to stop the number of San Franciscans being displaced onto the streets from rapidly rising. 

This outcome is similar to what faces unhoused people in New York City, where over $1.8 billion is spent annually on a massive shelter system for over 60,000 New Yorkers in order to satisfy New York’s “right to shelter” mandate. A 2018 report from the Picture The Homeless Research Committee called “The Business of Homelessness” argues that New York’s prioritization of shelter over permanent solutions to homelessness has exacerbated the crisis, stating “by failing to create new units… the city is ensuring that shelter entry will continue at pace for the foreseeable future.” The report finds that investing in greatly increasing the availability of low-income housing would be much more financially responsible than continuing to prioritize expanding and maintaining the shelter system. 

“Even at current capacity and cost, the city could finance its share of the cost of housing every homeless family with the money that it is already set to spend on operating shelters over the next three years. Over the next seven years, the city will spend more on operating shelters than the amount of city subsidy required to create new housing for every single homeless household in NYC.” – “The Business of Homelessness” report

Based on the effect that “A Place For All” would have on San Francisco’s ability to invest in long-term solutions to homelessness, as well as the outcomes other cities such as New York City have had with similar “right to shelter” policies, it’s clear that this legislation would be disastrous for unhoused San Franciscans’ ability to exit homelessness. Beyond that, it would also bear negative implications for people living on the streets of San Francisco, because it would increase the city’s ability to enforce anti-homeless ordinances. In his op-ed, Supervisor Mandleman implies that this legislation is not aimed at ending homelessness, but rather at ending street homelessness, defending the cost of “A Place For All” by arguing that “If we want to solve street homelessness in our neighborhoods, we need to fund policy interventions targeted to solve street homelessness in our neighborhoods.” This sentiment was reflected both in the Supervisor’s words and those of his legislation’s supporters in the Budget and Finance committee, many of whom expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to have their uhoused neighbors removed from their neighborhoods and business districts. Mandelman also alludes to the fact that this kind of widespread removal could not be possible without legislation like his, because of a federal court ruling that“prohibits most local enforcement actions ‘when no alternative sleeping space is available.’” For unhoused San Franciscans, this means that “A Place For All” gives the city the ability to effectively ban street homelessness, removing unhoused San Franciscans by threat of criminal prosecution from the neighborhoods and communities they call home. The city’s constant sweeps and police harassment are already aimed at making it increasingly difficult for unhoused folks to survive on any given street for long periods of time, but a shelter for all policy like “A Place For All” gives the City power to make it effectively impossible. 

Dozens of public commenters at the Budget and Finance committee meeting spoke in opposition to “A Place For All” for these reasons, including several currently and formerly unhoused San Franciscans who demanded the city invest in providing them housing instead of the proposed safe sleep sites. All three members of the committee — Supervisors Haney, Gordon Mar and Ahsha Safaí — agreed with them that “A Place For All” would take away from other priorities such as the Our City, Our Home recommendations, thus choosing not to pass the legislation onto the full board. However, the committee did not disagree completely with the idea of a shelter for all policy, as some panel members seemed more concerned with the legislation’s reliance on safe sleep sites and the high costs and low level of services associated with them. As a result, “A Place For All” is effectively dead in committee, but the potential for a shelter for all policy to achieve more success at the Board of Supervisors remains. For now, at least, the city remains able to spend the money that would have gone to Mandelman’s legislation on funding thousands of exits from homelessness in the next two years, while continuing to maintain a right-sized and diverse shelter system.