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Hearing to reveal SF’s seriousness about ending unsheltered homelessness

Sam Fugate and his tiny dog, Sonar, pack up their encampment on 17th and Alabama streets in Potrero Flats, as SF Public Works employees block the intersection while the sweep takes place on May 17, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In the dry and colorless world of municipal ordinances, San Francisco ordinance 92-22 stands out as if it were written in purple.

Passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on June 14, 2022, and signed by Mayor London Breed 10 days later, the ordinance boldly proclaims that "It shall be the policy of the City to offer to every person experiencing homelessness in San Francisco a safe place to sleep."

To that end, the ordinance directed the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to submit to the mayor and board by Dec. 31, 2022, a plan to make available enough shelter space and permanent supportive housing to cover all unsheltered people in the city within three years.

The ordinance made clear that this was not to be an academic exercise. The plan was to be an "implementation plan" that would include an "implementation timeline" and detailed cost estimates for both the 36-month period while it was being put in place and then the ongoing costs of keeping it running.

The department submitted its response to the ordinance—a slim 23-page document entitled "A Place for All Report"—on Dec. 30.

By the fifth word of the submission, it was clear that homelessness department was not going to do what the board had requested.

Public records obtained by Bay City News show that the initial draft of the submission was a "A Place for All Plan," but that changed after Emily Cohen, the department's deputy director for communications and legislative affairs, commented on the draft: "I'm concerned that the use of the word ‘plan’ in our document implies that we are going to implement and implies that this is our plan."

Cohen went on to say that in the public messaging, she wanted it clear that what was being filed was a response to the requirements of the ordinance, not what the homelessness department was going to do.

On March 21, the board will hold a hearing on the department's submission, and it seems likely that the board will let the homelessness department know what it thinks about a report being substituted for a plan. More importantly, the hearing may reveal whether the board is actually serious about ending unsheltered homelessness.

Ordinance 92-22 begins with the candid admission that "San Francisco has struggled with homelessness for at least four decades" and, to prove it, goes on to recount the efforts of mayor after mayor after mayor who tried to address "the city's most enduring crisis."

The history begins with Mayor Dianne Feinstein's efforts in 1982 to launch faith-based emergency shelters and soup kitchens, followed by Mayor Art Agnos's "Beyond Shelter" plan that led to the 1990's opening of two shelters with on-site mental health and substance use disorder services.

The recitation moves to Mayor Frank Jordan's effort to start the Matrix Program in 1993, which tasked the police department with clearing unsheltered people from the streets and connecting them with services. During Jordan's reign, voters approved propositions that banned aggressive panhandling and forbid loitering near ATMs for more than one minute.

During Mayor Willie Brown's two terms in office, the city added thousands of units of subsidized housing and also leased and renovated single room occupancy hotels for the unhoused.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's "Care Not Cash" ballot measure housed 2,127 people between 2003 and 2007, and his "10 Year Plan To Abolish Chronic Homelessness" proposed creating 3,000 units of permanent supportive housing. The Newsom era also saw the passage of Proposition L in 2010 making it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The first city navigation center was opened in 2015 on Mayor Ed Lee's watch. His administration created the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2016 and committed a billion dollars over four years to address homelessness. The new homelessness department opened 10 navigation centers—eight are still in operation—serving 5,000 clients between 2015 and 2019.

In 2018, Breed committed to opening 1,000 shelter beds by the end of 2020, a plan that was not fully achieved by the time the pandemic arrived. However, taking advantage of the fact that hotels were largely empty as visitors stayed home and sheltered in place, the city temporarily acquired 2,441 rooms for the homeless.

In 2018, San Francisco voters passed Proposition C, creating a business gross receipts tax expected to generate $300 million annually for housing and services for the homeless. Using some of that funding, in 2020, the board approved acquiring or leasing an additional 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing.

READ MORE: The Homelessness Crisis Is Sending BART Careening Toward Fiscal Disaster

After recounting that history, ordinance 92-22 notes that despite 40 years of investment, "San Francisco has never established a comprehensive citywide strategy for meeting the shelter needs of the unhoused," and states that "San Franciscans are justifiably frustrated [...] that thousands of unsheltered people continue to sleep on the streets night after night." 

By directing the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to prepare the plan, the ordinance set out to change that. 

As the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and its consultant were preparing the report, the issue of unsheltered people living on city streets was also being debated in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Donna Ryu. The Coalition on Homelessness, a well-known advocacy group for the homeless, had sued the city claiming that the city's practice of sweeping tent encampments was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The coalition's legal theory was based on a 2018 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Martin v. City of Boise, which ruled that laws forbidding sleeping or camping on city streets cannot be enforced constitutionally if there is no place for the involuntarily homeless to get shelter. Without a viable alternative to sleeping on the street, the bans essentially punish a person for the status of being homeless, a condition that is not illegal.

San Francisco's police code provides that tent encampments on city streets are illegal and authorizes the city to clear encampments, but only after giving advance notice and offering shelter to the residents of the encampment.

The coalition did not challenge the legal requirements of San Francisco's code, but for more than two years, it had been gathering evidence about the way the city actually conducted encampment sweeps. Based on that effort, it said the city's practice didn't conform to law in two fundamental respects.

First, the coalition alleged that the city repeatedly cleared encampments without providing genuine offers of shelter. Second, it said that when an encampment was cleared, the city routinely ignored the requirement that the belongings of the residents be bagged, tagged with their names and taken to a location where they could be retrieved.

The coalition requested a preliminary injunction and, in support, submitted a powerful collection of affidavits from individuals who had been living in encampments, from advocates who had observed dozens of sweeps and from former city employees who had worked in homeless outreach and on encampment "resolutions.”

On Dec. 23, 2022, just before Christmas, Ryu entered a preliminary injunction that forbid the city from enforcing various state laws and local ordinances against sitting, lying or sleeping on city streets as long as there were not enough shelter beds for the unsheltered.

The decision touched off a firestorm.

"Mayors cannot run cities this way," Breed said in a statement. "We already have too few tools to deal with the mental illness we see on our streets. Now we are being told not to use another tool that helps bring people indoors and keeps our neighborhoods safe and clean for our residents."

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu issued his own press release. "The court's order puts San Francisco in an impossible situation, practically and legally,” Chiu said. “I am concerned that this order, if interpreted broadly, will lead to more people suffering on our city streets."

The city's outsize reaction was motivated by its fear that the order would be read to mean that the city couldn't clear an encampment until there was a bed for every unsheltered person in the city. The city believed it should be able to act against encampments as long as it could offer a bed to each person residing there.

If that were not the meaning, the city argued, it would be barred from clearing any encampments because the city was thousands of beds short of what it needed to shelter everyone. As of February 2022, the time of the last official homeless count, there were 7,754 individuals in the city experiencing homelessness and, of that number, 4,397 were identified as sleeping in unsheltered locations.

The shelter bed shortage was so severe that the city had closed the shelter system to self-referrals, meaning that an unsheltered person could not go to a shelter for a bed on their own; they had to be referred by a city agency.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing's "A Place for All Report" was an extraordinary document.

Over 23 pages, it purported to price out the cost of complying with the ordinance's mandate. Using modeling developed by an outside contractor, it concluded that it would cost the city $1.45 billion dollars to bring the unsheltered population to zero in 36 months and would cost $410 million annually thereafter to maintain the infrastructure it created.

While those numbers were eye-poppingly large—$1.45 billion was more than 10% of San Francisco's entire annual budget—the report explained that those amounts were not all-in numbers.

The $1.45 billion was the additional amount that it would cost the city on top of the amounts already being funded by the city's existing $687 million homelessness budget. Assuming the city's budgets contained like amounts in the following two years, it meant that the city's all-in three-year cost to provide services for the homeless would be approximately $3.5 billion.

And that wasn't all the bad news.

In a remarkable caveat to the report's conclusion, one that perhaps explains why Cohen couldn't live with the term "plan" in the title, the report stated that even with an additional $1.45 billion and three years to spend it, the city could not actually do what the ordinance contemplated.

According to the report, it was too hard to find and acquire sites, there were too many delays in leasing and development, and it was too difficult to build "provider and City staff capacity and infrastructure to scale and then support an expanded system" in that time frame.

In other words, the homelessness department's report concluded that what the board of supervisors had requested was impossible, though the drafters settled on the more politic statement that it was not "feasible."

The drafters may have had a concern that their conclusion would not be well-received.

In emails exchanged between the department and its consultant, it proposed that the report be "co-branded" with the consultant's company name and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) on the cover.

The consultant declined that opportunity for free publicity stating: "From our perspective, the APFA plan is really an HSH product that we provided technical assistance and support for. We used and compiled information provided by HSH and are producing the plan that messages what HSH has decided. Our preference is to have the materials be branded solely by HSH."

The department's calculation of the cost of ending unsheltered homelessness was quickly cited by the city attorney in the pending lawsuit.

In a filing dated Jan. 3, 2023, the city asked Judge Ryu to "clarify" her ruling and make it clear that the city could clear encampments as long as it offered shelter to each displaced resident. In urging her to adopt that interpretation, it provided the judge with a copy of the homelessness department's report and emphasized that not only would it cost $1.45 billion to zero out the unsheltered population, but also it would take years.

Ryu denied the city's motion to clarify on procedural grounds, but the city renewed the substance of the motion in a request that the judge stay her order pending appeal. A hearing on the city's motion for a stay is scheduled to be held March 23.

In the meantime, the city appealed the preliminary injunction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that decided the Martin case in 2018.

The City Attorney’s Office was not the only one to reference the $1.45 billion price tag.

News media referenced the report and repeated the homelessness department's conclusion. A Google search conducted on March 15 found more than a dozen different news sources reported the $1.45 billion number in the course of their coverage of homelessness in San Francisco.

But for all the attention to the conclusions of the report, little was written about how the department and its consultant reached those conclusions.

The March 21 hearing should provide an opportunity for the board to evaluate the methodology and assumptions the department used to reach its conclusions. (Bay City News's attempts to obtain work papers fro the department that show all the assumptions and calculations in the report began Jan. 25. Despite contacting the homelessness department eight times in writing in the seven weeks that followed, it has failed to produce the work papers.)

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the original author of ordinance 92-22, has already indicated that he is unhappy with the homelessness department's report.

In a 10-part Twitter thread posted on Feb. 1, Mandelman said that the department's report "reads more like an explanation of why we can't end unsheltered homelessness than a roadmap for how to do so. It's as if HSH is hoping to convince the City that ending unsheltered homelessness is impossible, so we shouldn't bother trying."

In a March 17 interview, Cohen said, "We will be issuing our strategic plan next month, which has a bold but still what I think is a little bit more achievable target."

Some areas of the report appear particularly likely to draw attention.

First, the report was seemingly prepared on the assumption that the city would add additional capacity at the same cost (both startup and operating costs) as the city has experienced in the past. No additional economies of scale were assumed, and most importantly, the report accepted that the city's historical costs were reasonable. There is no evidence that the department rigorously evaluated whether the city's operating experience was in accordance with best practices, or if the city could reduce costs by following programs and models utilized in other cities.

That meant, for example, that the model accepted the idea that it would cost $58,000 a year to shelter a single adult in a congregate, or dormitory-style, shelter; $62,000 to shelter an adult in a noncongregate shelter; and a whopping $87,600 at a safe sleeping site, basically tents in a secure setting with wraparound services.

For reference, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco in March 2023 is $2,995 or roughly $36,000 a year, according to, a website that tracks housing costs.

The department's more-of-the-same approach is not what the ordinance seems to have contemplated. Ordinance 92-22 specifically required "an analysis of the cost-effectiveness of different Shelter, Homelessness Prevention, and Permanent Supportive Housing models, which addresses the association between each model and successful outcomes for clients."

A second methodological issue with the report is that it only tallied expenses, failing to evaluate any offsetting savings that would result from reducing the unsheltered population to zero.

While "avoided cost" calculations can be misused to justify inflated spending, it is unrealistic to expect that the city would receive no financial benefits from accomplishing what the ordinance contemplated.

Among areas where future savings would seem likely to accrue are savings from reducing the constant demands on police, emergency management, public works, and the homelessness department to deal with the endless stream of 911 and 311 complaints about encampments.

One might also plausibly consider the potential for additional business tax receipts from businesses that no longer have to operate with street encampments deterring customers. Similarly, a city without unsheltered homeless might well draw more tourism.

Third, the report appears not to have considered cost-reduction possibilities such as contracting for shelter and/or housing in areas outside of San Francisco where housing costs are cheaper; contracting with private operators and offering incentives for them to provide housing; expanding the usage of safe sleeping sites; reevaluating the component costs of additional wraparound services at shelter sites; or rebidding (or in many cases bidding for the first time) contracts with the nonprofits who provide most of the homeless services.

The report may not end the matter.

Ordinance 92-22 still says that "it shall be the policy of the City to offer to every person experiencing homelessness in San Francisco a safe place to sleep."

Mandelman in particular does not seem willing to throw up his hands and say that the policy proclaimed in Ordinance 92-22 should be abandoned. The final post in his Feb. 1 tweetstorm said, "the failure to provide safe, clean, accessible public spaces across San Francisco's neighborhoods is perhaps our local government's gravest failure, and compassionately correcting that failure should be our top priority."

The March 21 hearing may reveal whether the other supervisors see it the same way. 

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