The news of how much San Francisco spends each year on programs for people who are homeless rippled across The City in a predictable manner: mostly comments about the number, which is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Indeed, the $165.7 million figure — a number revealed by Supervisor Mark Farrell from a report compiled by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose — is large. But the supervisor was not panning the amount spent, which goes toward a number of services, including supportive housing. Rather, the release of the report was a precursor to Farrell’s call for an audit of the efficiency of the spending — a move that should be embraced by everyone.
Farrell is not calling for any reduction in services, which could be devastating for programs that help people transition from living on the streets to more stable housing. Those services include temporary shelters, help with any drug addiction problems, connection to services for mental health care and longer-term housing.
The supervisor is also not saying The City should merely spend the money for supportive services for the thousands of people living on the streets, a figure the report said would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Instead, Farrell is rightly saying the money spent should be measured in outcomes.
If it indeed comes to light that every penny is spent in the most efficient manner, then perhaps The City should allocate more funds. But if it becomes clear that some of the funds would be better used — to a more efficient outcome — elsewhere, that would be best for both the people receiving services and The City. Providing the best services possible for every dollar spent is the best goal.
Farrell is also calling for an evaluation of what other jurisdictions are doing. San Francisco is not alone in the number of people who are homeless. As detailed in a New York Times article, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has come under pressure for the growing population at homeless shelters, including an increase in families and children. Learning what cities such as New York are doing well could help in setting up a system in which all of the money here could be spent in ways that stretch to help even more people.
In San Francisco, Bevan Dufty, Mayor Ed Lee’s homeless czar, rightly points out that spending to help people move off the streets saves The City money. To add to that statement from Dufty, spending money to provide mental health services and treatment for drug addictions also could benefit The City in the long term.
As The San Francisco Examiner has editorialized before, merely building shelters and housing for people will never be the single solution for tackling homelessness, though it is a critical component. There are myriad reasons people end up living on the street, and getting to the core of the problems — whether it is merely financial or has deeper roots such as a mental health issue — makes the spending on homelessness more of a diverse issue than mere walls and roofs.
If San Francisco needs to spend more to help those living on the streets, that is the right thing to do. But if through an audit process The City finds it can do more to provide services with the money it already spends, then that is a benefit for everyone.