Coming to grips with our homeless crisis

San Francisco has the highest rate of street homelessness in the country — more than 4,300 people sleep unsheltered here every night.

But mass street homelessness is not an inevitable consequence of high housing prices, widening inequality, or deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. Cities like New York and Boston have aggressively built the shelter beds they need, and now have 10- to 20-times fewer street homeless per capita than San Francisco. Our City Hall, meanwhile, has taken us in the opposite direction and we have fewer shelter beds today than we did 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.


In 2004, city government released its 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Shelters were defunded to pour money into supportive housing in the hope that enough supportive housing could be built to find a home for all those who were chronically homeless. It was well intentioned, but unfeasible. And it failed. Over the 10-year plan, the number of homeless didn’t budge. And yet by 2014, there were 33 percent fewer shelter beds than 10 years earlier and sharply more homeless with nowhere to go but the street. Since 2005, the unsheltered homeless population sleeping on the street has increased from 2,655 to 4,353 in 2017.

The city has tried a new approach to shelters called Navigation Centers. These facilities come with more supportive services and fewer rules than traditional shelters, but they also kick most people out after 30 or 60 days and cost twice as much to operate as traditional shelters.

City government also has not built enough of these centers. With three new ones in the pipeline, San Francisco will still have fewer shelter beds than in 2004 — 686 Navigation Center beds and 1,203 traditional shelter beds for the 7,499 people experiencing homelessness. Even worse, three of the existing Navigation Centers are scheduled to be shut down over the coming two years to make way for new development, resulting in the loss of 288 beds. Despite an immense and immediate need, city government’s recently released Five-Year Plan to End Homelessness only calls for one new Navigation Center through 2022 with 65 beds and no new shelters.


My vision for new shelter facilities includes comprehensive services similar to Navigation Centers that give the homeless the best opportunity to start rebuilding their lives. But unlike Navigation Centers, they will not be temporary facilities that are already scheduled to be shut down the day they open. 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 have not proven to be cost-effective at getting folks off the street.

Shelters might not be the solution for everyone — especially those suffering from severe mental illness — but there is currently a 1,000-plus waitlist for shelter beds, and 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.

New York, Boston, and countless other cities have been aggressively building shelters and similar facilities for decades, and have effectively minimized street homelessness.

New York has an extensive shelter network with over 748 locations that house more than 62,000 individuals and families experiencing homelessness every night. If someone experiencing homelessness requests shelter, they are given it that day. This extensive network means New York has an unsheltered homeless rate of 45 per 100,000 residents. San Francisco’s rate is 492 per 100,000 residents, almost 11 times as high.

But New York has not only built many more shelter beds than San Francisco, it also employs a much more sophisticated approach to operating shelters. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Performance Incentive Program, for instance, helped create a system that held shelter providers accountable for delivering real results and provided financial rewards to top performers.

For far too long San Francisco city government has failed the people of this city by letting thousands and thousands sleep on our streets every night. Responsibility for this failure, ultimately, rests with our elected leaders. We can do better. That’s why I’m running for supervisor, and hope you will Pick Nick this November.

Nick Josefowitz is a candidate for District 2 supervisor. To learn more about his campaign, visit

This is a sponsored article paid for by Nick Josefowitz for Supervisor 2018. Financial disclosures available at


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