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SF Tents Drop to Pre-Pandemic Levels, But Homelessness Challenges Loom

  • There are fewer unauthorized tents and structures now than at any point in the pandemic, according to data released by the City, bringing the count down to levels seen in 2019

  • Some policymakers are concerned that the expiration of eviction moratoriums in California, currently set for the end of June, may exacerbate housing instability

  • San Francisco stands to benefit from an unprecedented infusion of cash from federal, state and local sources intended to combat homelessness

There are fewer tents dotting the streets of San Francisco than at any point in the pandemic, with the number of tents or impromptu "structures" used as shelter dropping by about two-thirds between April 2020 and April 2021.

That's according to a dashboard circulated by Mayor London Breed's office, which showed a count of 383 tents or structures last month compared to 1108 in April 2020. A count is conducted on at least a quarterly basis by the Healthy Streets Operations Center, a group assembled by San Francisco in 2018 to track and manage encampments.

The most recent count brings the number of tents down to levels witnessed before the pandemic, though the current count of 383 does not include six sanctioned tent cites that the City currently maintains, which collectively house about 270 tents. The numbers show a steady uptick predating the pandemic: There were 381 tents and structures in April 2019, but that number had reached 649 by January 2020.

Tents rapidly multiplied during the first months of COVID, as congregate shelters reduced capacity to comply with health guidelines. Parts of the Tenderloin grew so crowded that UC Hastings College of the Law, in conjunction with residents and other community members, sued the City to help clear sidewalks. They reached a settlement last June.

San Francisco has since placed about 2,200 unhoused people in shelter-in-place hotel rooms during the pandemic, reactivated about 1000 shelter placements, and expanded alternative shelter sites such as RV parks, according to City data. But those sites may not be enough to sustain a growing need for shelter, with the hotels program expected to wind down after federal subsidies expire.

The eventual expiration of eviction moratoriums also threaten to exacerbate homelessness if renters can't access further aid. California's eviction moratorium is set to expire June 30, and while the state has allocated $2.6 billion in relief for renters, some advocates and policymakers are concerned that tenants may be unable to access relief if they opted to pay rent but accrued other forms of extreme debt, for example.

In October 2020, San Francisco's Budget and Legislative analyst estimated that between 13,765 and 33,200 renter households were unable to fully pay rent, with total unpaid rent estimated at between $13.5 million and $32.7 million per month.

The City plans to invest in homelessness prevention programs as part of a broader, $500 million homelessness recovery plan outlined by Mayor Breed. Some of the funding for those efforts will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awarded San Francisco $18.7 million in direct funding to combat homelessness.

Those funds will help "build up our homelessness prevention efforts and create more permanent supportive housing on a scale that was unimaginable before," said Breed last week.

Mayor Breed aims to create 6,000 new housing placements as part of the recovery plan, alongside expanding shelter capacity, navigation centers and preventative efforts such as rental vouchers.

A group of California mayors, including Breed, is also demanding more funding from the state to fight homelessness, a crisis that has steadily grown amid a chronic housing shortage statewide. Breed and a group of other mayors called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to allocate $4 billion in annual funding to cities for homelessness prevention.

"No one city can fully address this problem because it is clearly a statewide crisis," said Breed last week.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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