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SF is short thousands of homeless shelter beds as storm approaches

According to public records, Willow Street has seen the most homeless encampment sweeps in San Francisco. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

San Francisco is expanding its homeless shelter capacity this week but remains thousands of beds short, leaving many people sleeping on the street as ongoing storm weather threatens to unleash dangerous amounts of rainfall on Wednesday. 

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing opened 80 winter shelter beds in December, but the inventory remains well below the population of unsheltered homeless—which could be over 4,000 people on a given night, according to the most recent count.

Forecasted to start early Wednesday morning, an upcoming storm is likely to wreak more havoc than last week’s deluge, which was the second-wettest day in over 170 years of San Francisco history. 

In response, the city is “flexing” the system at four locations until Jan. 15 to allow homeless people to access additional beds after 4 p.m. by presenting themselves at the facility, according to Shireen McSpadden, executive director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. McSpadden said that the city will also continue with homeless outreach throughout the storm. 

The storm highlights ongoing limitations in the city’s shelter system, which can grow particularly dangerous during severe weather.

Two hundred and ninety-seven emergency shelter beds sit open as of Tuesday afternoon, but many are reserved for people exiting jails and medical facilities, according to a city dashboard. The homeless department disabled its shelter waitlist as a Covid health precaution in 2020 to allow for long-term stays at the facilities, but has since neglected to create new options for people to access the shelters on their own accord. 

San Francisco has long deprioritized purchasing shelter beds in order to focus on permanent housing. But a lawsuit filed last year by the Coalition on Homelessness, which accused the city of violating the law in destroying homeless encampments, served to highlight the city’s insufficient shelter capacity. 

The coalition alleged that the city destroyed encampments and property without providing shelter space, violating a federal court precedent. A federal judge sided with the coalition in an emergency order on Dec. 23, ordering the city to stop conducting homeless sweeps without offering shelter. 

The homeless department released a report last week finding that the city is 3,810 units of permanent housing and 2,250 shelter units short, estimating that it would cost $1.4 billion to end unsheltered homelessness in the city.

David Sjostedt can be reached at

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