The temporary shelter debate for San Francisco’s homeless

With a dizzying array of proposed amendments, it’s unclear whether supervisors will support legislation.

The streets should not serve as a homeless person’s waiting room for housing, according to San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

But to those questioning his focus on temporary shelter, there shouldn’t be a waiting room for housing at all.

Mandelman’s second crack at his “A Place for All” proposal in the last two years has again become a lightning rod for debate over the city’s response to homelessness and whether temporary shelters are the path to reducing encampments.

Backed by business and neighborhood organizations, Mandelman proposes The City study how it could provide an emergency shelter bed for every homeless person on San Francisco’s streets.

Mandelman, who abandoned a previous iteration of the proposal in 2020, decried the “explosion” of encampments during the pandemic and lamented that neighborhoods have become “campsites of last resort” for the homeless.

Once again, advocates for the homeless have questioned Mandelman’s proposal, arguing that building a network of temporary shelters could pull resources away from the real solution to homelessness: more permanent supportive housing and affordable housing.

The Coalition on Homelessness, for example, contends there is no evidence that it would take longer for The City to build and develop permanent housing than to establish new shelters such as small cabins, tent cities, shelter-in-place hotels and congregate shelters.

“This plan would not be supplementing or complementing a housing plan because there is no housing plan,” said Carlos Wadkins, a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.

Mandelman believes allowing encampments to proliferate is inhumane, citing examples of dangerous fires that have harmed inhabitants. He believes The City can implement his shelter plan without abandoning its commitment to connecting the homeless to permanent housing.

After a dizzying array of proposed amendments to the bill during a committee hearing on Thursday, it’s unclear whether supervisors — even Mandelman himself — will support the legislation.

Concessions won by Mandelman’s colleagues in the new bill include a 10% cap on the number of spaces at safe sleeping sites — i.e. tent cities — that The City could include in its network of shelters. The bill also has a 50% cap on the number of beds that can be in congregate shelters, which sleep residents together as opposed to in separate spaces such as tiny homes or cabins.

Other amendments made by Supervisor Myrna Melgar on Thursday were targeted at making the bill more inclusive of permanent supportive housing in the city’s planning process. Another amendment was designed to ensure easy access to shelters for residents of every neighborhood in The City via a telephonic registration system.

Mandelman’s bill envisions an array of various shelter options for different types of people. It would task the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing with devising a plan to establish adequate shelter for all by the end of the year, then would give The City three years to actually implement it.

It’s an uphill battle, to be certain. The most recent official count in 2019 showed 5,180 San Franciscans were sleeping on the streets and not in a shelter.

Mandelman noted San Francisco is “approaching unsheltered homelessness in a way that’s different than many other places do.”

New York City, for example, has a court-established “right to shelter,” which mandates the city provide enough shelter beds for every homeless person. The result is that while New York City has the country’s largest homeless population, the vast majority are living in shelters and not on the street.

The cost is unclear, and Mandelman declined to provide an estimate on Thursday. The bill includes no funding mechanism, which will be part of what The City studies if the legislation is adopted.

“We don’t know if that is a $20 million cost or a $200 million cost,” Mandelman said.

That’s a sticking point for the Coalition on Homelessness, which alleged the bill “falsely promises relief for unhoused San Franciscans.”

Although Mandelman has touted his plan’s potential to clean the streets of encampments, the bill does little to explicitly address that issue.

But the consequence of having more homeless residents than shelter beds is a limited ability to conduct sweeps of homeless encampments.

Under precedent set by a federal court’s decision in Martin v. Boise, cities can not criminalize acts related to a person’s homelessness — such as sleeping on a sidewalk — if the city does not offer them an alternative, such as a shelter bed.

However, Mandelman acknowledged at a press conference on Thursday that his legislation does not directly address enforcement.

The City already does work to clear encampments, advocates for the homeless note, although the city’s stated goal is to connect people living in them to resources such as housing and behavioral health treatment.

But to homeless advocates, Mandelman’s bill would open the door to aggressive sweeps.

The bill is scheduled for a second committee hearing on May 26.

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The temporary shelter debate for San Francisco’s homeless

With a dizzying array of proposed amendments, it’s unclear whether supervisors will support legislation.