Re-Fund the Community: San Francisco Budget Victories, 2020

San Francisco, like many cities, is in a challenging place economically with over 200,000 workers on unemployment, a $1.5 billion deficit due to loss revenue, and exponentially higher needs for city services such as rental assistance, health care, child care and other city essential activities.    San Francisco has a very unique budget process, where the legislative branch receives the budget from the much more powerful executive branch and has the opportunity to cut things out of the Mayor’s budget in order to fund other things they deem as higher priorities. 

The Mayor’s budget included cuts to city services, as well as reductions in worker wages.  Most of the cuts were in the Mayor’s Office of Housing – which was scary – as well as cuts to children’s programs.  The Board was able to restore those cuts, and in the end, was able to fund additional services.  This was absolutely necessary to many San Franciscans survival – funding for food so children and elderly people don’t go hungry, or funding for rental assistance so folks can either stay in their homes or move off the streets are crucial.  

The last time we faced such budget woes was the Great Recession.  We are still paying for the budget cuts enacted then.  We lost about 30% of our shelter beds, 50% of our homeless drop-in capacity and $40 million in direct service cuts to behavioral health services.  Whole programs shut down, and we started seeing the impacts of decreased behavioral health almost immediately in our unhoused community.  

The Coalition on Homelessness plays a key part in these negotiations each year.  We fight to cut things out of the budget that harm our members, while trying to get things funded that either create exits out of homelessness or prevent people from becoming homeless.  This work goes almost all year.  We do a lot of research – getting input from unhoused folks, gathering data from front line service providers on system capacity, and carefully craft a set of budget recommendations.

This year, this work got an amazing boost from Black Lives Matters movement, resulting in local campaigns being birthed and dozens of hours of public testimony.  More was cut from the police department then we have ever seen, however it was nowhere near the 50% to 100% cuts community was asking for, with less than 7% cut to SFPD, and no officers were laid off.  However, there will be a shrinkage of the force as officers retire and new academy classes cancelled.  This funding did add up.  The other thing that was a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, is that the funding cut by the Mayor went into a fund to directly lift up Black lives and provide some restitution.  What is unique is that a task force, made up of 100% Black people will decide where that funding goes.  The Board of Supervisors then added funding to it.  The Mayor cut $120 million from a variety of enforcement-related departments such as SFPD ($20 million a year), District Attorney, Probation, and Sheriffs, over two years, and $72 million will go to health – such as environmental and mental health, while $42 million to workforce and Black-owned business.  The Board cut another $26 million from SFPD alone, and made cuts to Sheriffs and other departments as well.

This led to a robust addback pot.  However, one of the things the Mayor did was pass a budget that reduced city worker wages without having the authority to do so.  The various labor unions would have to go back to workers and then to the bargaining table and that would take more time than they had.  The Mayor dumped this on the Board, while publicly declaring war on her workers by using her microphone to shame them for not giving up wages and failing to acknowledge they have taken a six- month pay cut.  This created a hostile environment that made negotiating difficult. Budget Chair Sandra Fewer came up with an alternative way to fund the salaries through using a fund dependent on the gross receipts tax passing, but the Mayor wasn’t happy with it.  Funds for emergency funds for nonprofits were also included, along with funding for Black organizations.  The Mayor will likely sign the budget, but took a jab at the Board for doing this.

Meanwhile some important organizing had been taking place, with several “defund the police” efforts underway.  At the Coalition on Homelessness we concentrated on figuring out creative ways to elevate the voices of unhoused families.  We set up coloring kits for unhoused families to send “letters from the pandemic” with creations of their “dream homes.”  We collected over 100 of these letters and brought them to Fewer’s office.  We also had a listening session where about 20 unhoused family members got a chance to speak directly to Chair Fewer and Vice Chair Shamann Walton about their budget priorities.  This was a beautiful moment of transracial solidarity with Black, Chinese and Latinx San Francisco families sharing the impact the housing crisis was having on their families.  Lastly, we had a bell-ringing action where hundreds of people safely walked by and rang a bell for housing in front of City Hall.  

In the end, these efforts were successful, and we won over 400 housing subsidies, not just for families but other populations such as youth, seniors, people with disabilities, folks with HIV, trans community and more.  In addition we were able to win unhoused people hotel rooms for families and youth who don’t qualify for federal disaster assistance which is mostly targeting elderly people.  The Board also funded alternatives to policing which will be key to get further reductions to the carceral system – County Jail No. 4 at 850 Bryant is now closing even earlier – and there are many more places where our criminal injustice system is bloated and far too dependent on a punitive approach that does not lift people out of poverty and destitution, but usually exacerbates issues like trauma, mental illness, debt, joblessness, homelessness and other social issues that have been too often resulted in a law enforcement intervention.  

A big part of these successes is the behind the scenes work done by Chelsea Boillard, an aide to Fewer, who comes out of the community and is skilled at moving competing interests towards a common goal of justice.  If all of this holds, the budget will head to a full vote by the Board of Supervisors in mid-September, but there will be no more public hearings.  


Summary Wins

400 housing subsidies serving almost 600 people that can either move out of homelessness, or avoid becoming homeless.  

175 unhoused family members and youth who don’t qualify for FEMA will get hotel rooms.

135 unhoused people will get opportunities for gainful employment

Over 100 people will get legal assistance to stave off displacement and eviction

Funding to create alternatives to police response. 

Total funds redistributed towards ending homelessness due to our collective efforts in next year’s budget (*number reflects annualized amount in second year):



Housing Subsidies!

100 Senior Disability Deep Housing Subsidies to keep households housed and to house homeless households

    $750,000 funded  for first year and $1,000,000 for second year 

60 HIV Housing Subsidies to keep households housed and to house homeless households 

    $450,000 funded for first year and $600,000 second year

100 Displaced Tenants Housing Subsidies to keep households housed and to house homeless households

$750,000 funded  for first year and $1,000,000 for second year 

40 Flexible Housing Pool Subsidies for Families serving 120 people

    $1.28 million funded in first year and $1.7 million in second year

10 Need Based Subsidies for Homeless Families serving 30 people

    $500,000 in both years

15 Flexible Housing Pool Subsidies for Transitional Aged Youth

    $626,204 in both years

Emergency Housing!

100 homeless youth will have emergency housing in hotels

    $620,000 in emergency housing funds for TAY

25 Hotels rooms for Homeless Families

    $676,804 for both years


About 135 homeless individuals will receive employment services 

$750,000 in year one and $1 million in year two

Total HESPA Funded Year 1:  $6,398,008

Total HESPA Funded Year 2:  $7,723,008

Other Housing Justice Wins

17 families living in SROs can move into decent housing

$700,000 in both years

60 Transgender Deep Housing Subsidies to keep households housed and to house homeless households

$450,000 in first year and $600,000 in second year 

More than 100 households have access to tenant legal defense to stave off eviction

    $750,000 for tenant right to counsel in both years

Human Rights Wins

Part of this funding came from cutting Police Department and Sheriffs – 3 of 4 new academy classes cancelled, overtime was cut, and officers addressing homelessness through HSOC were put on reserve.

$2 million in year two was funded to develop alternatives to police response.