A tent encampment site for the homeless was set up in the Bayview District in May 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A tent encampment site for the homeless was set up in the Bayview District in May 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Safe-sleeping sites meet demands of San Franciscans’ top post-COVID priority

A Place For All would guarantee secure, well-managed locations for people experiencing homelessness

COVID-19 worsened what was already an untenable street homelessness crisis in our city’s neighborhoods. And the residents I’ve been hearing from over the last 13 months have been unequivocal: addressing that crisis must be City Hall’s top post-pandemic priority.

That’s why I have authored legislation called A Place for All to establish a network of temporary safe sleeping sites to guarantee a secure, well-managed location for every person experiencing homelessness to sleep. A Place For All — which will have its first hearing before a Board of Supervisors committee this Wednesday — does three things:

First, it will establish as city policy San Francisco’s commitment to provide shelter to every unhoused person willing to accept it, setting minimum standards for shelter that include a safe sleeping site with access to bathrooms, showers and 24/7 staffing;

Second, it will give the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, or HSH, four months to come up with a plan — together with proposed budgets, locations and policies — for how to achieve that goal over a two-year period; and

Third, pending Board approval of the plan, it will require HSH to implement it, ensuring that within two years every unhoused person in San Francisco can be offered shelter that is better than the nearest sidewalk, plaza or park.

Predictably my proposal is drawing fire from right and left alike.

For some San Francisco “moderates,” my legislation is “too much.” They contend that our city has already spent billions of dollars on homelessness, with little to show for it apart from bigger problems. The answer, they argue, is not to spend more on shelter, but to instead enforce existing laws.

While I understand their arguments, a 2019 U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. City of Boise now prohibits most local enforcement actions “when no alternative sleeping space is available.” Moreover, their no-investment, all-enforcement approach fails to acknowledge the great good San Francisco has done with the billions of dollars it has invested to successfully move thousands of people off the streets and into permanent housing.

Conversely, for some San Francisco “progressives,” my legislation is “not enough.” Their opposition centers on two points, the first being a false contention that A Place For All would establish a “right to shelter” akin to policies in New York City and Boston.

In fact, my proposed ordinance would not create a “right to shelter.” It’s fully compatible with aspirational solutions pushed by local homeless advocacy and policy organizations to address homelessness by giving unhoused people housing. Of course, that would require vastly more federal and state funding than San Francisco has received in four decades. But nothing about A Place For All would foreclose it.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that neither New York City nor Boston were blasted by the United Nations for the “cruel and inhuman” conditions of their street encampments, as San Francisco was. That’s a “world-class” distinction no San Franciscan should take pride in. A second argument some progressive critics are making against my legislation is that it would lead to enforcement against unfettered camping on streets and sidewalks by those experiencing homelessness.

In fact, A Place For All does not directly address the question of enforcement. I believe that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness would gladly accept an offer of shelter. I’m also convinced that a large majority of San Franciscans expect The City to end street homelessness once we have safe alternatives to offer. Encampments in residential neighborhoods and commercial districts are not sustainable, especially when so many unhoused people suffer from serious addictions and/or other mental illnesses.

Finally, critics from both sides fault my proposal for its costs.

During the coronavirus pandemic, San Francisco piloted for the first time a number of safe sleep sites. A recent analysis of those efforts ascribed a monthly cost of about $5,000 per tent, which included 24/7 security, facilities and three-meal-per-day food service, together with COVID-19-appropriate PPE and distancing placements. Those costs were unacceptably high, and I’m convinced they can be reduced significantly post-COVID with better planning and economies of scale. Still, decent shelter will cost money. Safe sleeping sites should be a quick and cost-effective alternative to traditional shelter, but there is no reason to expect them to be significantly cheaper on an operational basis.

And even if full implementation of A Place For All were to cost tens of millions of dollars, that money would still be a fraction of the many hundreds of millions of dollars the city spends each year on housing for people exiting homelessness without any appreciable impact on street conditions. If we want to solve street homelessness in our neighborhoods, we need to fund policy interventions targeted to solve street homelessness in our neighborhoods.

Gavin Newsom sometimes says, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll get what you got.” It’s time for San Francisco to try something different. It’s time for A Place For All.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman represents District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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