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Ending homelessness in San Francisco will cost $1.4B, city says

A homeless person sits on a sidewalk in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What would it take to house every single homeless person in San Francisco? That question has long vexed politicians, advocates for the unhoused and ordinary citizens. 

But new analysis paints a gloomy picture of the costs.

Ending unsheltered homelessness would require vast increases in housing, shelter and prevention services, according to the report from the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and homelessness consultancy firm Focus Strategies. 

That would cost the city another $1.45 billion over three years. And it would take over $410 million each year after that to keep the programs running.

The city’s latest homeless census in February counted 7,754 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. Most—4,397 of them—were sleeping outside. 

Unsurprisingly, getting them all into permanent housing or temporary shelters will not be straightforward. To do that, San Francisco would need to add about 3,810 units of permanent housing and 2,250 shelter units beyond those already slated for construction. It would also need to expand homeless prevention services and financial assistance, including “dramatically increasing prevention services targeting households without children,” the report concludes.

The report also stresses that shelter beds alone cannot end homelessness in San Francisco. Without more permanent housing, “additional temporary accommodations would need to be added in perpetuity to maintain low rates of unsheltered homelessness.”

Good luck with that. San Francisco is a notoriously difficult place to build new housing, even market-rate units.

In fairness to the city, it is conscious of these limitations. The report acknowledges that, at this price tag, San Francisco will not be able to end unsheltered homeless in three years. 

Nonetheless, “significantly decreasing unsheltered homelessness in the next few years is possible, and every attempt to do so must be made given the unacceptability of the status quo,” the department says.

The report is required as part of San Francisco’s “A Place for All” legislation, which was passed in June. Spearheaded by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the tendentious law requires the city to provide shelter for all homeless residents.

Mandelman told The Standard that he was disappointed with the report.

"I think we ought to be prioritizing ending unsheltered homelessness," he said. The Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing is "plainly not seeing it that way. [...] I think that's a big problem."

He was particularly concerned by a figure that estimated that a single shelter bed could cost up to $70,000.

"We’re going to have to have some conversations with [the department] in the coming months about what it would mean to have a cost-conscious path to ending unsheltered homelessness in San Francisco," Mandelman added.

Others were more matter-of-fact about the cost.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that the report demonstrates the importance of housing and prevention alongside shelter.

“The price tag is very high, as are the numbers of people experiencing homelessness,” she told The Standard. “However, it costs even more to keep people homeless. The most cost-effective intervention is to prevent homelessness, which also happens to be the most humane.”

San Francisco continues to grapple with a serious homelessness problem. Last week, a federal judge issued an emergency order temporarily barring the city from removing homeless encampments. 

The injunction comes as several unhoused people and advocates for the homeless—including the Coalition on Homelessness—are suing the city, alleging it is violating the U.S. Constitution and its own policy by clearing encampments.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to add comments from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

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