Plan to tackle homelessness in San Francisco unworkable, says department tasked with doing it

The department tasked with resolving the homeless crisis in San Francisco found its own plan to do so unworkable.

During a Board of Supervisory hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers discussed the Department of Homeless and Assisted Housing’s plan to eradicate homelessness across the city by 2026 — a noble goal but department head Shirin McSpadden says it’s impossible. Citing staffing shortages and the difficulty of finding usable real estate, the report concludes that the parameters under which the crisis is expected to ease are simply not feasible.

“We were just trying to be realistic about some of the issues,” McSpadden said.

The department’s 23-page report sounded defeatist in tone to some executives.

“Why are you writing down these numbers and then saying we can’t do that?” Supervisor Dean Preston said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

The abandonment of a long-term plan to accommodate all the homeless in the city seemed defeatist to one boss. | Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Of course, this is a complex topic, and also expensive. The Department of Homelessness report estimated that the cost of addressing the homeless crisis over the next three years would be $992 million. That figure of nearly $1 billion, down $400 million from the department’s original estimate in December, does not take into account line items already budgeted or $378 million in annual follow-up spending.

In addition, other considerations may make the goal impossible to achieve. For example, in the Mission District, 70 to 80 tiny houses are planned to be built at a cost of $7.4 million. was shot down after neighbors opposed the project. Project leader Hillary Ronen, who campaigned for the project, said the thwarted plan left her depressed.

Ronen said during Tuesday’s hearing that even with the necessary funding and political will, efforts to house and shelter every homeless person would run into too much resistance to succeed.

“I’ve been trying to work on this issue for 13 years now and I just ran out of ideas,” Ronen said. “If we can’t find a way to show our communities that these places are making things better for the area instead of making them worse, I just don’t know how we’ll ever find more places like this.”

The Civic Center’s Safe Sleep Center took the severity of the San Francisco crisis to City Hall’s doorstep. | Typhoon Joskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

According to the latest count, at least 4,379 people sleep on the streets of San Francisco every night, while up to 20,000 people are left homeless throughout the year. The issue consistently tops the list of concerns for residents, taxing vital infrastructure such as public transportation and law enforcement.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who called the hearing, disagreed with what he saw as the department’s fixation on permanent housing rather than housing.

Mandelman argued that the city was not responsible for permanent housing for anyone arriving in San Francisco and asked the homeless department to shift its focus to more temporary options.

“I just don’t believe this department is serious about fighting the homeless in San Francisco,” Mandelman said. “You seem almost unwilling to consider a more transitional housing-based approach.”

Department officials argued that the over-focus on the shelter would require the constant addition of new beds. So it can be more expensive in the long run. The department plans to publish another five-year plan to address homelessness next month.

While Preston argued that the city did indeed have a responsibility to house all homeless residents permanently, he disagreed with the department’s contention that the plan was unworkable.

Preston pointed to the city’s recent pledge to build 47,000 affordable housing units by 2031, as well as a $25 million additional budget for the San Francisco Police Department that was passed earlier in the meeting.

“Tell us what you need,” Preston said. “Let’s not assume that you can’t do it.”

McSpadden said the department’s reluctance stems from a shortage of staff that hinders its ability to quickly execute and monitor contracts. The department currently has contracts with many non-profit organizations that do not comply with state law.

“We’re seeing some organizations that are really struggling to keep up right now before we even try to do that,” McSpadden said. “We were just trying to be realistic about some of the staffing issues at both the nonprofit and our department.”

David Schoestedt can be reached in [email protected]

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