Supervisor's Report

A deeper dive on homelessness

Back in January, I wrote about homelessness in San Francisco, and the hearing I held on our city’s 10-year plan to abolish chronic homelessness. Since then, we have increased our focus on the issue, with a goal of evaluating the policies and programs that currently exist, which of these programs are working, and most important, what other programs or policies we can put into place to actually reduce our homeless population. It is still mind-blowing that we have more than 3,500 people sleeping on our streets every night and greater attention hasn’t been brought to the issue.

First set of hearings on homelessness

In March, I called for eight additional hearings related to homelessness in San Francisco. Sounds like a lot, but we needed to continue to take a deeper dive on the issue.

The first set of the hearings were focused on housing options, while the second set of the hearings focused on policies for the various subpopulations of our overall homeless population, including women, families, veterans, seniors, transitional-aged-youth, and our LGBTQ population.

As a city, we spend more than $100 million combined in local, state and federal dollars each year on permanent supportive housing and transitional housing; and, as we learned from these first hearings, the most cost-effective strategy as a city for our homeless is actually to provide housing. It may sound counterintuitive, but various academic and research studies have proven repeatedly that targeting housing opportunities toward the most chronically homeless helps to realize cost-savings for local municipalities because of the reduction seen in incarceration and the utilization of emergency care infrastructure and services.

Admittedly, with the current housing crisis that our city’s facing, it’s been difficult to help to house the homeless because of an extreme lack of supply. Our second hearing focused on the policy concept of the “housing ladder,” which strives to unclog the current supportive housing and shelter options for our homeless population, so that we can provide more housing opportunities and save the city money. To further the housing ladder concept and help turn it into a reality, I am working on legislation that would provide homeless individuals with a preference for city affordable housing programs so that we can create more turnover in current housing units and get more individuals and families off the streets.

Expanding the outreach

In preparation for these hearings, there was consensus among city department heads, service providers, and community advocates that the homeless outreach team (SFHOT) was understaffed and underutilized — even though the results they were producing were stellar. Increasing engagement with our homeless population is the first step needed to get individuals and families off the streets, and it saves our city money in the long run to do so. At any given time in San Francisco, there were only two to four individuals from the SFHOT team on staff doing outreach to over 3,500 homeless individuals sleeping on our streets. The number of staff was simply inadequate to meet the need.

Seeing a gap and an obvious solution, I sponsored a targeted investment at the Board of Supervisors to double the SFHOT team, which would allow increased homeless outreach workers in every neighborhood across San Francisco. Many residents do not realize how much our homeless population has expanded across the city into our neighborhoods, and I believe we need to address the problem everywhere.

My targeted investment also added more flexible housing opportunities to get more individuals and families off the streets. It’s an obvious statement, but one of the simplest answers to help end homelessness is to help provide a home; this targeted investment will help to stabilize and eventually house those who are experiencing the most serious of health issues due to their chronic homelessness.

More legislation and reforms to come

Homelessness affects everyone in our city, from those who are experiencing homelessness foremost, to our residents and visitors as well. This is a public safety issue, a civic pride issue, but foremost a human issue. We are the City of St. Francis, and we care about our most vulnerable. I believe we need to continue to be more effective with our current resources to tackle homelessness, eliminate those programs and policies that have proven to be ineffective, and invest in programs and policies that have proven to be both cost effective and produce the best outcomes.

There is no silver bullet to solving homelessness in our city or in others. We know that targeting the most chronically homeless and helping to provide housing opportunities will save San Francisco significant resources and will produce the best outcomes. That will obviously take time, but this issue needs to be viewed as a marathon and not a sprint. As we finalize the remainder of these hearings, I look forward to exploring more new policies and ideas to reduce our homeless population.

The list of ideas is endless, but San Francisco deserves a dedicated focus on the issue.

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Mark Farrell is the District 2 supervisor and can be reached at 415-554-7752 or