A “shelter for all” policy sounds good, but it takes resources away from long term solutions

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and former Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer stood outside The City’s first Safe Sleeping Village at Civic Center to announce legislation on Oct. 20, 2021 to establish a Safe Sleeping Sites Program for unsheltered people. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and former Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer stood outside The City’s first Safe Sleeping Village at Civic Center to announce legislation on Oct. 20, 2021 to establish a Safe Sleeping Sites Program for unsheltered people. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

By Jennifer Friedenbach

Homelessness is on the brink of exploding in San Francisco. But a proposal the Board of Supervisors is considering would cost an outrageous amount of money without ending homelessness for one person.

“A Place For All” requires the creation of enough safe sleeping sites and shelter within 18 months to warehouse every person living on the streets in need. On the surface this legislation sounds great, sanctioned encampments can provide a great alternative to congregate shelter; but dig a little deeper and you find a deeply flawed, tried and failed policy that only exacerbates homelessness.

While the use of safe sleep sites is unique, the idea of implementing a “Shelter For All” policy is not. In fact, the outcomes from this 80s retro policy are well known. In other cities “Shelter for all” policies have been ineffective and disastrous, sucking unrestricted city dollars away from preventing and solving homelessness into building and maintaining shelter.

One can simply take a look to New York City. Their department spends about $1.3 billion dollars of its budget on providing shelter for their unhoused population while thousands remain on the street. This huge sum detracts from the ability to provide long term solutions, namely permanent supportive housing, perpetuating the cycle of homelessness and entrenching people in a system of congregate shelters, with little hope of ever accessing permanent housing. As a result New York City has a higher rate of homelessness then San Francisco.

The timing of this could not be worse. We have a rare opportunity with incoming state and federal revenues and softening real estate market to move the dial on homelessness, but this horribly timed legislation would hobble our ability to secure the permanent solutions to homelessness we so desperately need, leaving unhoused San Franciscans stuck in the shelter system with no available exits from homelessness. With more people entering homelessness each day, the system would have to expand infinitely to keep up with need.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the cost of the city’s safe sleep programs over the last year amounts to about $61,000 per tent. This is well over the cost of a private market subsidy with support services for a single household, priced at about $40,000 per year, and over two times the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, The total price tag of this legislation is $244 million, equal to our pre-pandemic homeless department’s entire budget.

National experts on homelessness strongly recommend “right sizing” our shelter system and investing heavily in homeless prevention and permanent housing. This allows for movement out of homelessness as opposed to forcing impoverished people to be stuck in long bouts of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, where they see their health deteriorate and their economic mobility stifled.

In addition, the author refused to put in protections against using this legislation as a “work around” for existing federal protections of homeless people. In fact, he has often talked about it as a way to justify the criminalization of homeless folks through enforcement of anti-homeless laws such as sit-lie. According to the Ninth Circuit ruling in the landmark case Martin v City of Boise, “municipal ordinances that criminalize sleeping, sitting, or lying in all public spaces, when no alternative sleeping space is available, violate the Eighth Amendment.” “Shelter for all” policies provide a cheapened loophole in Martin v. Boise for local governments, using the availability of tent sites and mats in large warehouses to justify sweeping and displacing unsheltered residents with impunity.

In this context, “A Place For All ” could act as a dangerous restriction of the self determination of unhoused San Franciscans, using the threat of a criminal misdemeanor to forcibly round people up off of the streets and into crowded, city-run camps regardless of their individual needs. This approach to homelessness reflects a prioritization of policing over dignified, less costly solutions, and prioritizing the needs of well-heeled housed people who wish to avoid witnessing poverty over the needs of the most vulnerable people to have safe and decent housing. This shockingly large legislated investment would lead to greater inequity, denying the disproportionately Black and Brown unhoused community members the right to thrive, rather than investing in the permanent systemic change that will keep our neighbors off of the streets for good.

While it would be flawed even in the best of times, this legislation is being discussed at a time when the opportunity is ripe for San Francisco to set ambitious goals for increasing it’s permanent housing stock, including the creation of 10,000 units authorized by Prop. K and the Mayor’s ambitious Homelessness Recovery Plan for over 2,500 new permanent housing units for homeless people. Between the millions of expected federal relief dollars specifically slated for addressing homelessness, the hundreds of millions of available Prop. C dollars, and the new funds provided by Prop. I, the city has the opportunity to invest in the acquisition and construction of thousands of units. In combination with the over 1,700 people currently in SIP hotels with the guarantee of being moved into housing, this could put a huge dent in the skyrocketing population of unhoused San Franciscans.

A policy like “A Place For All” would immediately drain the city of these resources and confine the city’s options to tents, rather than housing. An overpriced tent is an exceptionally low bar to aim for.

Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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