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Supervisor's Proposal to Mandate Housing, Expand 'Safe Sleeping' Sites Met With Skepticism

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

  • Legislation proposed by Sup. Rafael Mandelman would make it the City's policy to provide shelter to unhoused people, and establish a 'safe sleeping sites' program to meet that mandate

  • The program would be managed by the Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing at an operating cost of anywhere between $16.9 million and $169 million per year, depending on demand

  • The City currently operates six safe sleeping sites at an average cost of $190 per tent. Mandelman believes the cost could be brought down to the range of $93 per night

  • Other Supervisors questioned the program's efficacy, with some suggesting that the money would be better spent elsewhere

Members of the Board of Supervisors questioned a proposal to expand "safe sleeping sites," or sanctioned tent areas, as part of a broader mandate that the City provide some form of shelter to all unhoused people.

The legislation, proposed by Sup. Rafael Mandelman and dubbed 'A Place for All', engendered both strong support and vehement opposition from members of the public who have seen unsanctioned encampments grow in their neighborhoods, particularly over the past year. At a Board of Supervisors Budget Committee hearing, Mandelman argued that the sites are a "necessary and doable" alternative to street encampments, and a way to improve conditions on sidewalks and public spaces relatively quickly.

"I believe a Place for All aligns with the values and sensibilities of a majority of San Franciscans who want an end to street homelessness, but also believe that no person should have to sleep on the street," said Mandelman of the proposed legislation. "Coming out of this pandemic, our constituents expect us to finally do something meaningful, game-changing even, about the street encampments that have earned this city an international reputation for failure and condemnation from the United Nations." In 2018, a representative from the United Nations likened the state of San Francisco's encampments to a human rights violation.

The 'Place for All' legislation would make it the policy of the city of San Francisco to operate enough safe sleeping sites, or other temporary shelter options, to meet demand. If approved, it would give the Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing four months to create a plan for meeting the mandate, and also require them to provide an estimate of costs, a list of sites, analysis of the cost effectiveness, and other details. The Controller's Office would also be required to produce a report on the program's outcomes every two years.

The City currently operates six safe sleeping sites at an estimated cost of $190 per tent per night, or approximately $18.2 million annually. Critics of the program balk at the cost, noting that the program costs about the same as rent in many one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco. Apart from the tent itself, operating costs at the sites include showers and toilets, utilities, meals, and general management provided by community-based organizations. Of the existing six sites, per-night costs vary from $131 to $271 per night in addition to between $50,000 and $300,000 in initial start-up costs.

According to the Budget & Legislative analyst, costs per site could be brought down to about $93 per night by eliminating CBOs and replacing them with private security at a billing rate of $45 per hour. But because there's currently no solid estimate of demand for these sites, the annual operating cost could range anywhere from $16.9 million to $169 million according the analysis. The Department of Homelessness estimated that between 500 and 5,000 individuals may require the outdoor accommodation under the Place for All legislation.

Critics of the legislation decried the sites as merely a band-aid solution to a much greater housing crisis, or too restrictive for guests, or an ineffective use of Proposition C funds. Proposition C, which established a tax specifically for homelessness solutions, is expected to raise about $250 to $300 million annually, in addition to $492 million already collected that was tied up in legal challenges.

Supporters of the Place for All legislation contended that safe sleeping sites, which can be spun up relatively quickly compared to traditional housing or navigation centers, are a more secure and healthier alternative to the street encampments that have sprouted up in recent years.

Members of the budget committee, including Sup. Ahsha Safai, Sup. Gordon Mar and Sup. Matt Haney, expressed skepticism of the proposal, with some suggesting that the tent sites lack sufficient services or would be less effective at helping people exit homelessness than navigation centers or hotel rooms. Others were wary of expanding the sites in the absence of clear evidence that they help people advance into housing.

Sup. Mar said he was "concerned that it would mandate an expansion without a plan for how [safe sleeping sites] would integrate with more permanent solutions."

Sup. Mandelman countered that the legislation does not necessarily require that temporary shelter offered by the City be a safe sleeping site, nor does it preclude expanded acquisition of hotel rooms, navigation centers or other interim shelter options. He told Sup. Haney that he would work with him to incorporate more hotel use into the plan if needed.

Mandelman said he was "disappointed" by the committee's response to the proposal, but pledged to try to win them over. The committee punted a vote on the legislation to a later time. If it were approved, it would advance to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote.

The discussion over safe sleeping sites is a flashpoint in ongoing debates over how to leverage available fundingwhich includes temporary FEMA reimbursement for shelter-in-place hotels, state funding through California's Project Homekey program, and the Prop C moneyto help people permanently exit from homelessness, an endemic problem that has vexed San Francisco residents for decades.

Mayor London Breed recently detailed a longer-term homeless recovery plan, which includes a major expansion of permanent supportive housing, boosting shelter capacity, and preventative solutions such as temporary rental subsidies for people at risk of becoming homeless.

The City plans add 1,500 new units of permanent supportive housing by 2022 through a combination of acquiring hotels and subsidy pools for private market rentals. Other housing projects currently under construction are slated for completion by that time, and will make it possible to move 4,500 people into permanent housing by 2022, according to Breed. Shelters, which were largely shut down during COVID, will also be reactivated alongside two new navigation centers and other temporary options, such as RV and safe sleeping sites, intended as an alternative to sidewalk camping.

According to a recent report by California's Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, more than 10,000 people sought homelessness services in San Francisco last year, a 40% increase over 2019 and the largest increase in the Bay Area. That statewide office aims to better track and analyze the delivery of homelessness resources going forward.

Locally, San Francisco launched a dashboard that shows demographic data on the homeless population, as well as the number of total shelter beds and other information.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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