San Francisco has the highest rate of street homelessness in the country, but this reality is not an inevitable consequence of high housing prices, widening inequality, or deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. Cities across the country have aggressively built the shelter beds they need and do not have thousands of people living unsheltered on their streets. San Francisco has fewer shelter beds today than in 2004.
It’s time for new leadership and a change of direction. As your supervisor, I will draw on the best practices from other cities and work to deliver 3,000 new shelter beds, 300 new mental health treatment beds, and deep accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars City Hall spends on homelessness every year.
CITY HALL’S FAILURE: HOW WE GOT HERE
San Francisco’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in 2004 called for defunding shelters and pouring money into supportive housing in the hope that enough units could be built to find a home for all those who were chronically homeless. It was well-intentioned but unfeasible.
Over the 10-year plan, homeless numbers didn’t budge. And yet by 2014 there were 33 percent fewer shelter beds than 10 years earlier and sharply more people experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go but the street. The unsheltered population has increased from 2,655 in 2005 to 4,353 in 2017.
The city’s latest approach is Navigation Centers, which come with more supportive services and fewer rules than traditional shelters. But they also kick most people out after 30 or 60 days and are scheduled to close before they even open. Right now there are some 686 Navigation Center beds and 1,203 traditional shelter beds for the thousands experiencing homelessness every night. In two years, there will be 288 fewer Navigation Center beds due to closures.
City government’s recently released Five-Year Plan to End Homelessness only calls for one new Navigation Center with 65 beds and no new shelters through 2022.
DATA-DRIVEN SOLUTIONS TO STREET HOMELESSNESS
My vision for new shelter facilities includes comprehensive services similar to Navigation Centers that give those experiencing homelessness the best opportunity to rebuild their lives. They will not be temporary facilities; they will be designed for folks to live there until they find permanent housing.
Unlike many responses to homelessness, building new shelter facilities is fiscally feasible, coming in at $25,000 per bed. The total buildout cost for 3,000 new shelter beds — if spread out over eight years — would be less than $15 million annually and could be funded by cutting back on programs that are not cost-effective at getting folks off the street.
Shelters might not be a solution for everyone — especially those suffering from severe mental illness — but homeless outreach workers document that 7 out of 10 folks they contact who are sleeping on the street would prefer to sleep in a shelter.
GIVING PEOPLE THE CARE THEY NEED
Many folks experiencing homelessness and living unsheltered also struggle with mental health issues or drug addiction, and sometimes both. They are often unable to care for themselves, and some of those with untreated mental illness can become violent. This is a crisis for our city.
As supervisor, I will work to put in place the legal framework to allow the city to place people into care when they are unable to care for themselves and are a threat to our community. But San Francisco has fewer mental treatment beds than in 2004, and the California Hospital Association estimates that we are hundreds of mental health treatment beds short of what we need. That’s why, as supervisor, I will work to deliver 300 new mental health treatment beds so we have a place to treat and care for those who are suffering on our streets.
ACCOUNTABILITY AT CITY HALL
City Hall spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on the homeless population, but it hardly understands where the money goes. It doesn’t track the cost of providing medical services and ambulances, for instance, despite a budget analyst report showing that medical costs are the most significant homeless-related expense. It also doesn’t track the cost to the criminal justice system of homelessness, or the services that they benefit from that are not specifically designed for the homeless, like CalFresh and CalWORKS.
There is no way we can work to spend our funds more effectively if we don’t know how much money we’re spending today. As supervisor, I will make sure the city tracks every dollar we spend on homelessness — not just with a one-time audit but continuously and systematically.
City Hall also does not know whether the services it provides to the homeless population are working and doesn’t systematically track results. As supervisor, I will work to adopt a performance-based approach to contracting, in which each homeless service provider is rewarded for successfully getting folks off the street and helping them rebuild their lives.
WE NEED A NEW APPROACH
For far too long city government has made decisions that directly resulted in thousands upon thousands of people sleeping on our streets every night. Responsibility for this failure, ultimately, rests with our elected leaders. Addressing street homelessness must be City Hall’s top priority. We can do better. That’s why I’m running for supervisor, and hope you will Pick Nick this November.