Proposal for major expansion of safe sleeping sites gets cool reception in committee

Supervisor Mandelman calls for creation of more temporary shelter sites to get homeless off streets

A proposal by one supervisor to require San Francisco to create enough city-sanctioned sites where the unhoused could live in tents met with opposition Wednesday from colleagues and homeless advocates during a more than three-hour hearing.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has argued that The City should spend tens of millions of dollars annually on temporary shelter sites like tents in parking lots so that all those living on the street could be offered a place to go instead of sleeping outside of businesses or homes.

Critics argue the proposal would waste resources that could be used for long-term solutions to homelessness like permanent supportive housing and rental subsidies. They also fear it would be used to increase police enforcement against homeless residents who may decline to use the sites.

The three members of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, supervisors Matt Haney, Gordon Mar and Ahsha Safai, voted to accept a number of amendments Mandelman proposed for his legislation, but all three spoke against it.

No date was set for when the proposal might be heard again. “I’ll keep trying to win you over,” said Mandelman, who has yet to pick up any support for the legislation among the other board members.

Mar agreed that there was a role for safe sleep sites, city-sanctioned sites where people can live in tents with oversight, but he said such a vast expansion could hamper The City’s primary focus on permanent supportive housing, rental subsidies and prevention.

“We really don’t need this legislation to pursue thoughtful expansion of safe sleeping sites,” Mar said.

Haney said The City should be “doubling down” on efforts that move people out of homelessness, not “warehousing people.”

Safai raised concerns over cost.

A budget analyst report on the so-called Safe Sleeping Villages, which launched during the pandemic, shows there is an average cost of about $190 per tent, per night. A site without as many services could run at $93 per tent, per night.

“It’s an extraordinary amount for something that is temporary,” Safai said. “I don’t know how we pay for this proposal. It would take money away from many of the things that there have been a lot of thought and effort put into.”

Safai was in part referring to the efforts around deciding how to spend the additional $300 million a year to address homelessness that The City is receiving as a result of the Proposition C tax that passed in November 2018.

The City’s Our City, Our Home Oversight Committee has been meeting to recommend how the funds should be used in the coming fiscal years. Recommendations include funding for things like acquisition of buildings or hotels, a site to park vehicles and some safe sleep sites.

Mandelman, who did support Prop. C, said he was “disappointed by the reception that the legislation has received.”

“My concern is that we will spend those hundreds of millions of dollars, we will solve homelessness for many thousands of more people as we have solved homelessness for tens of thousands of people over the last decades, without seeing a measurable improvement in conditions on the streets,” Mandelman said. “And that is intolerable and wrong.”

Under Mandelman’s amended proposal, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing would have to submit an implementation plan within four months on how it would open up enough Safe Sleep Sites to accommodate 500 unsheltered people within nine months, as well as a plan to provide within two years enough Safe Sleep Sites or other temporary shelter facilities to accommodate all unsheltered people in San Francisco who would be willing to accept a referral to the sites.

The plan would include costs and possible locations. Safe Sleep Sites could include other types of shelter such as tiny homes, according to the proposal.

Opponents of the legislation included homeless advocates like the Coalition on Homelessness. Support came from a number property owners and small business owners.

Dave Karraker, a board member of the Castro Merchants Association and co-owner of MX3 Fitness, said he supports Mandelman’s proposal because small businesses need better street conditions to help them survive after being “utterly devastated during the pandemic.”

“A tourist or resident stepping out of the Castro Muni station into a homeless encampment is the kind of obstacle to a small business’ survival we simply can’t afford right now,” Karraker said. “The tourists will come back. And is this what we want them to encounter, sidewalks lined with tents, so they can go back to their friends at home and say ‘Don’t go to the Castro there are homeless tents everywhere, people living in squalor with mental health issues and doing drugs in broad daylight?’”

Mary Kate Bacalao, policy director for Compass Family Services, a nonprofit housing provider for the formerly homeless, opposed the proposal.

“There are other better interim solutions,” Bacalao said. “We can’t shelter our way out of homelessness. We can’t afford to divert planning efforts to a massive investment in outdoor shelter. We can’t afford to scale programs that aren’t moving us towards housing and real long-term solutions.”

Haney said that a discussion over the best way to address homelessness will continue with hearings planned on the City’s Our City, Our Home Oversight Committee funding recommendations and the homeless department’s budget proposal.

Mayor London Breed will submit to the board for review a proposed two-year city budget by June 1, which will also be another opportunity for the committee to debate the issue.

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