Stays in San Francisco's homeless shelters averaged more than six months last year, new data from the city shows, as politicians push to create thousands of more beds amid political controversy and a high-stakes lawsuit.
Before the pandemic, most stays at the city’s homeless shelters were limited to three months, but in 2020, the city changed its policy to allow people to stay indefinitely. Last year, the average stay in an adult shelter was 205 days, according to data from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
In interviews, some people staying in the shelters said that they had spent well over a year living in temporary lodging, in some cases, bunking in a single room with dozens of strangers and a locker full of belongings to their name.
“I’ve gotten so used to living here that it doesn’t really faze me anymore,” said a man who would only give his name as Robert C., who was waiting in line at the SoMa shelter Multi-Service Center South on Tuesday.
The man, who said he was originally from Texas, sleeps in a bunk bed in a room with more than 100 other people and estimated that he had been living at the facility off and on for three years. He said he has been unable to secure permanent housing because he lost his birth certificate and has personal challenges, including alcoholism.
Others staying in the city’s older warehouse-style shelters—where occupants may have to bunk with dozens of other people in a single room—told The Standard that they were eager to leave the facilities but described obstacles such as obtaining necessary documents, physical illnesses and addiction.
John Dunlap, who said he became homeless in 2018 after being evicted due to a rent increase, compared staying in some of the city’s shelters to incarceration.
“It’s like the county jail—same bed mats and everything like that,” Dunlap said. “I’m grateful to have a place to stay, but you can get stuck in a spin cycle here.”
During the pandemic, the city leased hotels as temporary shelters for people living on the streets. In 2020, people remained in hotel rooms or other shelters for an average of 339 days. But as that program wound down, the city began reopening older congregate shelters that had been temporarily shuttered amid worries about exposure to Covid.
A new political reality has emerged as well: Pointing to deteriorating street conditions in the city, local legislators are pushing for a greater investment in shelters as a more immediate alternative to sleeping on the streets.
Meanwhile, homeless advocates have resisted that push over concerns that the city would treat the facilities as a substitute for housing. Others are attempting to reimagine shelters by designing them with more privacy in mind.
The city currently has just over 3,000 shelter beds, which are usually kept at 90% occupancy in order to maintain room for emergency admissions. In all, on any given night, around 2,800 people sleep in the city’s shelters, while around 4,400 people sleep on the streets, according to the most recent count. In comparison, the city has over 12,400 units of permanent supportive housing, though 825 of those units are sitting empty.
The lack of shelter availability has fallen under a microscope in recent months as a local nonprofit called the Coalition on Homelessness wages a lawsuit against the city for allegedly destroying homeless encampments without providing an alternative place to sleep. A federal judge issued an injunction in December, siding with the coalition and prohibiting the city from displacing involuntarily homeless people and leading some local leaders to amplify their calls for more shelter.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has led the push for more shelters, saying that the city’s streets have become a waiting room for housing that never arrives for many. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution authored by Mandelman that urges Mayor London Breed to fund 2,000 new shelter beds over the next two years.
In an interview, Mandelman said that he found the data on shelter stays interesting and said he would consider calling a hearing to explore it further.
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing currently spends 20% of its $672 million budget on shelter and 62% on housing.
The department acknowledges the need for more shelters, but has been hesitant to invest more in temporary options if it means taking that money away from housing resources. Officials contend that it costs more to pay for 24/7 shelter staff, and that deprioritizing housing production would ultimately exacerbate homelessness.
Carolyn Kenady, co-founder of the civic action group called RescueSF, disagreed that shelter would ultimately cost more money, pointing to the initial capital costs of acquiring housing. Kenady argued that the city isn’t meeting the homelessness crisis with the immediacy that it deserves.
“We see shelter as a path out of homelessness, not a dead end,” Kenady said. “The city is going about this in such a linear fashion, and in the way that they've always done it, and it just really isn't speaking to the moment.”
So-called “tiny home” projects that can quickly provide people with private living quarters have seen success in other cities. But in San Francisco, such projects have consistently hit roadblocks due to a scarcity of land, uncertainty around costs and neighborhood pushback.
Paul Boden, who was formerly homeless and is now executive director of the homeless advocacy group Western Regional Advocacy Program, was incensed by the supervisors’ push for more shelter beds and said that the only solution to homelessness is more housing.
“The facilities themselves were supposed to be temporary, and now people are basically moving in and living there,” Boden said. “That should tell you that your homeless program is a dismal failure.”
As these debates play out, those staying at the city’s shelter said they were grateful for laundry services, free food and case-management staff but envision a long road ahead to fully get back on their feet.
“I want out of here. I want a place to stay. I want a job,” said Brad Ross, who said he has been living in a shelter for around a month. “All of this is good, but you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity.”
David Sjostedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org