By Joe Dworetzky
Bay City News
The city is taking the wrong approach to getting unsheltered people off San Francisco streets, according to a citizen group that believes an alternative approach would shave $1 billion from the projected price tag.
The group filed detailed comments Monday to a city report that said it would cost $1.45 billion and take three years to get all unsheltered people off of San Francisco’s streets.
Rescue SF, self-described as a “a citywide coalition of residents advocating for compassionate and effective solutions to homelessness in San Francisco,” suggested that leasing existing space instead of acquiring or building would reduce the city’s projected cost by a billion dollars and still get the same results.
The matter has its roots in SF Ordinance 92-22, passed in June of 2022, which declared 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 get to that end, the ordinance directed the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to prepare a detailed plan to shelter every homeless person in the city within three years. The plan required HSH to detail how much it would cost to do so.
On Dec. 30, HSH submitted its “A Place for All Report,” concluding that it would cost $1.45 billion over the first three years and $410 million a year thereafter.
In view of its lofty price tag, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman tweeted, “It’s as if HSH is hoping to convince the city that ending unsheltered homelessness is impossible, so we shouldn’t bother trying.”
Rescue SF’s comments, co-authored by Mark Nagel and Lori Brooke, are entitled “More Beds For Your Buck: A Cost-Effective Approach to Ending Unsheltered Homelessness in San Francisco.”
While the comments do not criticize HSH, Rescue SF highlights the fact that HSH prioritized acquiring or building shelters and permanent housing rather than leasing apartments for housing and converting existing hotels into shelters.
Because of the challenges of acquiring, building and siting properties in San Francisco, HSH’s approach results in frontloading the expense (and difficulties) of reaching the goal of ending unsheltered homelessness in the city.
One graphic in the comments shows that the start-up costs for one unit of housing acquired by the city is $556,000, compared to $11,000 for a leased apartment unit.
The comments acknowledge the argument that owning is generally more advantageous than leasing, but counters, “While this is true in the long run, San Francisco’s urgent street crisis is forcing the City to focus on the short run… leasing can bring many more people into housing than newly constructed buildings…. New construction could take up to five or six years to complete, while a leased building could be operational within months.”
The comments also challenge the report’s reliance on HSH’s average historical costs of operating shelter beds. Relying on that experience, the report estimated annual operating costs of between $58,000 and $88,000 per bed.
The comments called out the recent master lease and conversion of a hotel at 711 Post St., where the per-bed annual operating costs are approximately $30,000. Replicating that approach would save hundreds of millions of dollars over the three-year period.
The comments acknowledge that their conclusion will depend on the city being able to find enough apartments for lease and enough hotels with owners willing to master lease and convert their rooms. “If the city fails to surmount these practical constraints, the number of units or the associated costs would change.”
Nagel, co-founder with Brooke of Rescue SF, said the organization was formed three years ago when “we saw that the city was in trouble, in a real crisis. And instead of pulling our hair and complaining, people said, well, what can we do about this? How can we help?”
Rescue SF prides itself on being nonpartisan and coming to the table not with general criticism but with specific suggestions that it has carefully researched. Nagel said, “We’re not ideological. We don’t have any preconceived notions of what the right answers are. We look at best practices, we talk to people, we learn, we’ll change our minds. We get new information.”
Nagel said that in preparing the report, “What the department did was they took all of their usual practices, business as usual, and said, let’s take these interventions and do that for all the people on the street…”
He said he would have preferred it if the report started with the question “given that we have limited financial resources, what combination of shelter and housing will accomplish our goal? Get everyone off the street with the limited resources that we have.”
Nagel says that the city can’t continue to just manage the problem using the same old approaches. He says, “let’s treat homelessness like a natural disaster, and act with an urgency to get people off the streets.”
A hearing on the report is scheduled before the supervisors at City Hall Tuesday at 3 p.m. in Room 250. Mandelman has scheduled a press conference on the same topic at 12:30 pm Tuesday on the City Hall steps (Polk Street side).