The Board of Supes held an incredibly important hearing on homelessness Tuesday, with testimony from a wide range of people and lots of discussion about city priorities. Among other things, Sup. Rafael Mandelman called for a dramatic change in how the city responds to homelessness, a shift from the current housing-first model to more of a 1980s-style approach that focuses on short-term shelters as a way to get people off the streets.
In the process, Mandelman blasted the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for not doing enough to clear the streets. “We should not allow our sidewalks to be the waiting room for housing,” he said.
The hearing came in response to a report that suggested ending unsheltered homelessness would cost the city more than $1.4 billion over three years, a number that HSH said could be reduced to roughly $1 billion.
Mandelman said that’s not a feasible plan for clearing encampments and said that “If HSH can’t get the job done, we should find someone who can.”
Sup. Dean Preston disputed Mandelman’s approach: “This is not a large number,” he said. “Why is this infeasible? That’s a political decision.”
He noted that the HHS report called for about 4,000 new units of permanent supportive housing over the next three years. The supes recently approved a Housing Element that calls for 46,000 new units of affordable housing in the next eight years; if the city can promise the state it will do that, he said, what’s the problem will making less than ten percent of that available to the unhoused?
“This makes no sense,” he said.
The discussion put the city’s housing and homelessness crisis in sharp relief.
Mandleman called several witnesses who testified that the city could do more to clean the streets and build decent short-term housing; he also called Jeff Bellisario, the director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.
None of the witnesses represented homeless people or their advocates.
Mandelman argued that the city, instead of focusing on long-term supportive and affordable housing, should fund at least 2,000 more immediate shelter beds.
He called Sam Dodge, the director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center at the Department of Emergency Management, and asked what would be required to clear all encampments within 24 hours.
That, Dodge said, would require “a paradigm shift, a pretty radical change” in the city’s housing policy. But if the city created enough shelter beds for everyone in the encampments, he said, it could be done.
Under federal court decisions, the city can’t force homeless people to leave the streets unless there is adequate shelter for them.
The message: Create someplace for people to go, no matter how inadequate, and the city can resume massive sweeps.
Shireen McSpadden, director of HSH, told the supes that the city seeks a balanced package of interventions to address homelessness, and that in the long term, a shelter-based approach would be more expensive. If the city can’t do more to prevent people from becoming homeless, she said, “we will never have enough shelter beds.”
Roughly 8,900 households become homeless every year, she said, and if “we can’t end inflows and create permanent housing” the situation will never change.
Gail Gilman, director of All Home California, said that poverty and homelessness are a regional issue. (She was the only speaker who talked about poverty.)
If all you offer people is a congregate shelter, she said, many will refuse; people chose to remain on the streets because congregate shelters are challenging.”
That’s a nice way of saying they are not acceptable living conditions.
She also said that among the people experiencing homelessness are “the working poor who are living in their cars.”
Then came Bellisario, who talked about the impact of homelessness on businesses, and said his goal is to “grow our regional economy.”
After the witnesses, Mandelman made his position clear: “There is a deep institutional bias toward permanent housing in San Francisco… I don’t think we can provide a permanent home for everyone who engages with our systems, and I don’t think that should be the goal.”
Preston, on the other hand, asked why the city should keep approving luxury housing so that every rich person who wants to live in San Francisco has a nice place.
Mandelman argued that the city is “ideologically committed to permanent supporting housing and unwilling to commit to a different approach.”
This reminds me of Dianne Feinstein, who was the mayor when homelessness became an issue in the 1980s, after the federal government stopped funding urban housing and the social-safety net began to get shredded in the name of tax cuts for the rich.
Feinstein’s approach was to assume this all was temporary, that people could eventually find jobs and housing, and that all the city needed was shelter space to get them off the streets (and out of public view).
There were two words missing from the discussion (well, three, except that Gilman mentioned poverty):
The reality, which many of the witnesses either denied or ignored, is that homelessness is the result of federal, state, and yes, local policies that are based on the idea that market solutions work and that growing the economy, by making life easier for big business, is and should be a policy goal.
There are no easy exits from homelessness in a city where the minimum wage doesn’t come close to the cost of market-rate housing, where boosting the tech industry (which many of the people at City Hall supported) has played a huge role in creating homelessness and displacement, and where we have created such radical economic inequality that you can’t address any housing issue without talking about it.
A billion dollars to get everyone on the streets housed? That’s a tiny fraction of the money that the tech industry has brought into this city.
Shelters? In this economy, they will never be temporary; there will be no way out unless the city funds permanent housing.
There are many homeless people with serious mental health and addiction issues, people who, to quote Bob Dylan, are “bent out of shape by society’s pliers.”
You can’t solve that problem without money, the money that since Reagan (and since Mayors Dianne Feinstein, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee, and London Breed) has accrued almost entirely to the very rich.
I will make it very clear and simple: Homelessness is a result of economic inequality. Economic inequality is a result of policy decisions at every level of government, including San Francisco. And sweeps and shelter won’t do anything to solve it.
That’s what we all ought to be talking about.