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Politics & Policy

Drug-free housing for San Francisco homeless could be required by 2025

“You cannot recover in a raggedy-ass SRO in the Tenderloin,” said one recovering addict who supports a bill to prioritize sober housing. 

A man in a suit speaks into a microphone while holding up a document titled "San Francisco Recovers." Yellow balloons are visible in the blurred background.
Dorsey is co-authoring legislation that would prioritize sober living in the city’s subsidized housing stock. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

A new ordinance authored by two San Francisco lawmakers could restrict funding for new subsidized housing for homeless adults until at least a quarter of all units are drug-free.

The legislation, which was co-authored by Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Rafael Mandelman, aims to create more options for homeless adults who want a sober living space on the heels of the city’s deadliest year in overdoses

San Francisco’s subsidized housing sites have received criticism for a lax attitude when it comes to drug use, with an average of three people dying per week due to overdoses in city-funded housing. 

Dorsey, who is a recovering addict himself, said his legislation paves the way for more safely connecting San Francisco’s growing homeless population to housing by prioritizing sober facilities.

The ordinance would restrict funding for new “drug-permissive” housing for adults exiting homelessness, except in select projects. Instead, in order to receive unrestricted subsidies, housing would be required to be drug-free until at least 25% of the city’s supportive housing is recovery-focused.  

“I’m grateful to my fellow recovery community members and the advocates and experts with whom we’ve worked—on this and other needed policy priorities—since I first joined the Board of Supervisors,” he said. 

A large group of people are gathered outside, holding blue signs that read "GIVE RECOVERY A CHANCE" and "RECOVERY HOUSING FIRST!" while raising their hands.
Matt Dorsey, District 6 Supervisor and former addict, asks a crowd of those in support of recovery-based housing to raise a hand if they have lost a friend to an overdose. | Source: Sam Mondros/The Standard

Surrounded by dozens of people in recovery, Dorsey asked the crowd to raise a hand if they had lost someone they knew to an overdose. 

Nearly everyone raised their hand. 

“I feel empowered by this legislation,” said Vincent Jones, 62, who has been sober for seven months after a 45-year addiction to crack cocaine. Mr. Jones, who has been living at Joseph Mcfee Center, a recovery-focused housing site, said he plans to return to his family in Sacramento in seven months after he’s clean. 

“I was lost at one point and lacked the ability to help myself,” Jones added. “They send you to these places that are full of drugs. When I first got into my addiction, I could have really used a program like this.”

Per the ordinance, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing would coordinate with the Department of Public Health to establish local rules and regulations based on federal policies on relapses and when a resident may be discharged. The legislation also includes a low-barrier option for recovery housing that permits voluntary residents without an official diagnosis of substance abuse disorder.

As it stands, California law requires that 100% of permanent supportive housing providers accept residents regardless of “sobriety” or “behaviors that indicate a lack of ‘housing readiness.’” This effectively stonewalls recovery-focused housing from receiving funding—something those who have recovered from drug abuse say is antithetical to proper rehabilitation.

A person in a wheelchair, head in hands, sits by a wall as pedestrians walk by, seemingly unnoticed.
Mayor London Breed supports new legislation that aims to create more options for homeless adults who want a sober living space.  | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“You cannot recover in a raggedy-ass SRO in the Tenderloin,” said Del Seymour, a one-time addict and the founder of Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit that provides support for those recovering from addiction. 

The proposed ordinance comes as lawmakers are eyeing changes to state rules around supportive housing. Last month, Assemblymember Matt Haney introduced Assembly Bill 2479, aimed at solving the issue of recovery-based housing state-wide by amending existing state law to permit up to a quarter of state funding for housing to be allocated to recovery housing. The legislation received support from Mayor London Breed, passed the Assembly last month with a unanimous 72-0 vote and is currently being reviewed by the state Senate. 

If both laws are enacted, Dorsey said they will work together with the state providing substantial funding support while ensuring San Francisco meets its goals around recovery housing..

In San Francisco, last year was the deadliest on record for overdose deaths. Of 810 fatal overdoses, 17% occurred in the Tenderloin—the highest rate of any neighborhood in the city, according to preliminary data published by the city in April.

Between 2020 and 2021, 14% of all overdoses occurred in housing subsidized by the city, even though the units only accounted for 1% of the population, according to The San Francisco Chronicle

“I, like so many others, have been placed in a housing unit with many of the most unwell and drug addicted individuals with zero supervision and rehabilitation programs,” said Daniel McClennon, an addict and current resident in a harm reduction facility in San Francisco. “This is an obvious recipe for disaster. They’re often havens for all manner of criminal activity.”

According to Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, 71% of the roughly 450 tenants who responded to a recent survey said they would prefer drug-free housing.