San Francisco’s Budget on Homelessness: Too Little Housing, Too Much Bureaucracy

Courtesy of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Over and over again, we’re told the City shouldn’t have more affordable housing, shelters, food pantries, or other services for low-income and homeless folks because we spend so much money on them already. We hear that $241 million spent annually is not getting the job done so we should stop spending more. Some people truly believe our City leaders are invested and committed to ending homelessness in San Francisco. While the budget is essential to ending homelessness amongst our seniors, youth, and families, who are the ones actually working to serve our community? And how does the City value workers in the street versus workers in the newly-formed Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH)?

To be clear, the $241 million figure was determined in a 2015 Legislative Analyst Office report about how much SF spends on homeless services (including state and federal funds). To keep this number in perspective, it is only 2.7 percent of the City’s total budget. This budget spanned numerous departments and City agencies before the HSH was created last year. Today, some of those services like healthcare and welfare are not under HSH and remain in their respective departments, meaning HSH’s budget is certainly smaller than $241 million.

Some of the HSH budget, however, can surely be put to better use. For instance, HSH’s budget includes funds for “outreach” performed in conjunction with the San Francisco Police Department, such as the “re-encampment prevention team,” who are unable to even refer people to shelter or housing, essentially shuffling folks from sidewalk to sidewalk. It also includes money for free bus tickets for homeless folks to get out of town (who are then counted as officially “housed” in our City statistics). But a huge portion of our tax money goes to fund the large salaries and benefits for the workers of the bureaucratic behemoth we call HSH.

HSH is a new City department, launched last July to gather all the resources, decision-makers, and bureaucrats under one roof to streamline services for homeless folks—at least that was the idea. Yet our adult shelter wait list has grown from several hundred individuals to over 1,200, encampments are swept and destabilized by police daily, and homeless families are being denied access to our family shelter waitlist under the guise of “reducing homelessness through coordinated entry.” Meanwhile, HSH is growing, renovating offices for their workers, and advancing our Mayor’s anti-homeless stance in stride.

We are going to have a look at some of the exorbitant salaries paid to HSH staff and whether this is truly a valuable investment for our City. Not every HSH employee’s salary was available and the figures below are from 2015 and exclude benefits, which typically cost another 30 percent of the total salary. We will see that many people working to end homelessness made more than the average SF City worker, earning roughly $80,000 per year. And when reading keep in mind the costs are certainly higher today, but the positions remain and the opportunity to make a mint while “solving homelessness” persist.

The “Top Tier” of HSH includes the managers of each sub-department, deputy directors, and the head of the department. There are 19 positions in this tier, with public information on salaries for only 9 employees. Of these nine employees, their salaries amount to an astounding $1,092,046 per year. Ten vacant positions remain to be occupied and boost that figure into the stratosphere.

Most, if not all, of these employees do not interact with homeless folks on a daily basis. Their offices have guards, locked doors, and no drop-in capacity. Services are not provided in their buildings, no case management or housing applications are available, and no public restrooms can be accessed without going through a metal detector. The department frequently makes decisions behind closed doors without any input from the people impacted by their many poorly conceived policy changes. 

With this $1,092,046 our City could instead provide deep rental subsidies for 60 families at $1,500 a month. This would provide significant assistance for nearly a quarter of all homeless families on the waitlist for shelter. This money could get them housing, ensure they can afford rent and their children have a safe, secure place to sleep—all for 9 employees. It is worth noting that rental subsidies for families were one of the budget items specifically targeted and eliminated by Mayor this year in his City budget.

In San Francisco, it costs roughly $15,000 annually to provide shelter for homeless residents. With the cost of these nine “Top Tier” employees, we could cover the costs of shelter for 72 more beds in our shelter system every night for a year. That could be 72 more people off our waitlist. It could mean 72 fewer seniors, disabled folks, women, and youth sleeping outside.

The manager of Adult Emergency & Outreach Services earned $133,821.76 in pure salary in 2015. Under him are 5 other managers, several who make over $100,000 a year in salary and at least 15 additional HSH employees.  For just two managers, HSH spent nearly $250,000 in 2015 on salaries, a considerable sum for only two workers. In 2016, the leading rental assistance agency in SF used approximately $265,000 in paying off back rent and preventing homelessness for over 500 individuals and families in supportive housing–all for the cost of these 2 managers.

Residents receiving welfare benefits who sleep in the shelter beds these two managers “oversee” are only allotted about $70 a month. A month. Our former Mayor, Gruesome Newsom, pushed for this legislation to save the City money by providing shelter and not giving out cash. Apparently this same frugalness didn’t apply to his employees. The City could instead use 2 manager salaries to double the monthly welfare benefits for nearly 400 shelter residents.

Affordable housing, the fundamental solution to ending homelessness costs SF approximately $12,000 per tenant per year. A single manager’s salary could supply the funds to keep ten people housed for a year.

Our City chooses to spend $120,000+ on a manager’s salary rather than housing. And that’s just for one manager. At least a dozen more HSH employees “serving” homeless San Franciscans are given over $100,000 in salaries.

Of course, many services need workers to function: shelters, Navigation Centers, outreach, case management, supportive housing. But the main difference is that these workers are on the front lines, educating, advocating for, and supporting homeless folks in their quest to find or maintain housing. The daily trauma and suffering experienced by folks without housing is conveyed directly to these workers. These workers witness the deterioration of elders and disabled folks. They see the dysfunction of the system that is HSH.

But are the employees at HSH really observant of the needs of the community? Would someone working with homeless families living five people to a 10 by 10 foot room really say that this family is not eligible for shelter? Would a case manager assisting seniors really agree that a shelter waitlist of 1,200 people is okay or even humane? How can the voice of a disabled woman with no email or phone be heard by a bureaucrat when she can’t even bring all her belongings into their building? How can the new Coordinated Entry System for Homeless Families even function when the same department refuses to allow homeless parent organizations a seat or three at the table that is making these policies? With the highest authorities in our Homeless Department lacking community accessibility, we have to ask: will the voices of homeless folks be heard and taken into consideration when crafting City policies?  These are all questions we have to ask when looking at where our City’s investments are going and whether these investments are in the community or not.

The Coalition wholeheartedly supports workers committed to ending homelessness and providing valuable services to our residents. We support the unions that have allowed these workers to have such generous salaries. What we need to look at is more complex. We need to examine the hierarchical structure and how that affects decisions being made by those in power. We need to ask who will be the ones working in these positions: formerly homeless folks who know the system better than someone who’s never stayed a night in a shelter or people who see poverty as a choice and support police sweeps of encampments. We need to have advocates in positions of authority, not people who will work to uphold the status quo. We, as a City, need to invest in homeless folks and their magnificent capabilities, not bureaucrats segregated from the community at large.