Opinion: Safe sleeping sites offer San Francisco’s best homeless approach

Because permanent supportive housing is unsustainable

We’ll begin with the bad news.

We are not going to end homelessness.

The scale is too daunting. There are now over 550,000 homeless individuals in America, over 150,000 of them in California.

People who do not have shelter have been a persistent problem for decades. And now, with COVID and the iffy economy, people who never dreamed they’d be homeless are living in cars or tents on the street.

There’s even a report that says if the pandemic recession is as serious as feared, homelessness could increase by 49% in the United States and 68% in California.

It’s terrible.

Luckily, here in the Bay Area, we’ve been getting a lot of advice. On his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver took on homelessness. His solution? Give them homes.

He’s advocating for permanent supportive housing (PSH). Just place every homeless person in PSH.

Problem solved.

So San Francisco just has to gear up its permanent supportive housing and we will have this under control in no time.

Except that San Francisco has more PSHs than any major city in the United States.

Frankly, I didn’t believe that. So I went to the San Francisco Controller’s Office to find the 2017 report.

Sure enough, compared to PSH beds per 100,000, San Francisco is slightly ahead of Washington D.C. and way ahead of cities like Philadelphia and Boston.

“And,” said a city official who asked not to be named, “our streets still look like crap.”

So it’s not as easy to solve as it sounds.

Housing every unsheltered person, particularly with a growing population, in permanent supportive housing is unsustainable. Last month The City said it put 1,200 people in hotels. But with a homeless population of over 8,000, that’s barely making a dent.

In addition, the National Academy of Science did a study on PSHs and “improving health outcomes among people experiencing chronic homelessness.”

First, it said permanent housing is no cure-all. It said “there is a lack of evidence” to show “improved outcomes.”

But it also questioned the cost effectiveness of brick-and-mortar housing. The “high capital costs,” it said, “are a substantive barrier.” It cites regulatory problems, permits and neighborhood opposition.

As we know, this isn’t just a San Francisco problem. It’s the Bay Area, too. And it would be a wonderful day if the surrounding areas could all put together a single, workable homeless program.

I’m not holding my breath.

But if they did, consider some mind-blowing numbers. A bayareaeconomy.com report estimated in 2019 that it would take $12.7 billion to create permanent housing for the 28,200 who needed it.

San Francisco has a stunning $1.1 billion homeless budget this year. But even using a conservative estimate of $450,000 per unit for Bay Area construction costs from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, it would have to triple that (8,000 x $450,000 = $3.6 billion) to house everyone.

That’s a huge chunk for a city attempting to avoid a COVID recession. And by the way, where’s the money for low-income housing and teachers?

All right, you say, what’s your plan?

Well, it isn’t perfect, but I’d go back to Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s idea of safe sleeping sites. Those are organized locations where tents can be pitched safely and The City can provide services, like bathrooms and even showers.

There’s one at Civic Center now, and although the public reacted with horror when it was established, it’s now been there over a year and problems have been minimal.

There are several advantages. First, the people living in tents like the idea. In fact, I’ve been told by two people who work with the homeless that as many as 10% of those in tents actually have housing. They prefer living in a tent community. (In some cases, frankly, to be near their dealer.)

Also they get to live with a partner, keep a pet and have their own space. Granted, it is not a hotel room, but maybe the sites could be a way to transition to housing as rooms opened up. At this point you’re either housed or you are on the street.

Mandelman’s attempt to expand the program went nowhere at the April 2021 Budget and Finance Committee meeting.

But it is still a popular idea and Mandelman is said to be considering putting it on a city-wide ballot.

The politically intimidating Coalition on Homelessness supported the idea at first, but since has done a 180 and is against it. Instead, they say, they want permanent supportive housing. And so it goes.

There were some concerns about the cost of the tent sites originally. A budget analyst report estimated it would cost $190 per tent each night, which would run to millions of dollars.

Supporters say those numbers were skewed by the pandemic and that costs would be much lower. If that’s true, we will want to see receipts.

Still, sites could be up and running in short order. There’s almost no construction needed. It would be a matter of finding open areas and arranging for a group, probably a nonprofit, to oversee it.

Of course, that kind of crazy, pie-in-the-sky idea isn’t likely to happen any time. Which major American city would be nuts enough to try something like that?

Well, Los Angeles for one. In September, L.A. passed a two-pronged law on homeless encampments.

First, it restricted tent encampments in several residential and commercial areas of the city. Tents cannot be placed in doorways, next to schools or blocking sidewalks. Orders are enforced by the police.

But the city also established a prototype safe sleeping site. It has room for 95 tent spaces, bathrooms, showers, food services and social services. There’s even a basketball court.

It’s a start.

It also seems to be the most honest approach to homelessness. We can’t house everyone. There’s no way.

But instead of ending homelessness, maybe we need to think of coexisting. No one wants a tent blocking their door. But allowing someone to live in a safe space doesn’t sound like a bad idea, even if it is in a tent.

Also, there is a glimmer of hope. It’s been worse than this and we’ve gotten through it.

After the Great Depression there were over 2 million homeless people in the United States. And homeless campsites sprung up all over the country.

And they stayed there until President Franklin Roosevelt put together a nation-wide relief plan called the New Deal.

A comprehensive, national plan to reduce homelessness?

Now there’s a concept.

​​Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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