• Jim Kelly

San Francisco's make-believe homeless strategy

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

If you improve the service you provide, should you expect fewer customers?

That is the bet San Francisco, along with many other American cities, is making with its homeless budget.

It's not working particularly well.

Most visibly, it’s a humanitarian disaster. Thousands live on the streets in squalor that the rest of us would find appalling if we didn’t step through it every day. Medieval diseases are on the rise. Used needles and feces line the streets. Muni buses have become de facto homeless shelters. Property crime tops the FBI’s charts.

It’s also a financial fiasco. The budget for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has quadrupled over the past decade and now exceeds $350 million ($43,000 per homeless person) per year. The homeless population has meanwhile grown from 6000 to 8000.

In 2018 voters approved Proposition C, which will pour another $300 million down the sluice if it survives court challenges. That’s on top of $50 million per year from 2016's Proposition J and a series of “affordable” housing bonds: $310M Proposition A in 2015, $261M Proposition C in 2016, and $600M Proposition A in 2019.

What should we expect from all that?

The Multi-Billion-Dollar Plan

To read SF’s strategic framework for homelessness, we shouldn't expect much. The outcomes to date are so bad that officials no longer talk about ending homelessness, except to redefine the concept in terms of building out and operating their bureaucracy:

An end to homelessness does not mean that no one will ever experience a housing crisis again. It means that our community will have a comprehensive response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible and provides short-term emergency shelter and rehousing support whenever needed to ensure homelessness is a rare, brief, and one-time experience.

By this vague definition, they may have “ended homelessness” already. Most San Franciscans have a place to live, so it’s already rare. Although on a given night 8000 people are homeless, over the course of a year 20,000 experience some homelessness, so does that mean it’s usually brief? Does one-time mean once per year or per decade or per lifetime? When we get it to “one-time,” how will we know?

One of the department’s few measurable outcome goals is to halve the chronically homeless by 2023. They projected in 2017 that they’d bend the curve by 2019, at 2300 chronically homeless people. In fact last year’s count exceeded 3000.

San Francisco is already far off its 2017 homeless plan. [From HSH Strategic Framework and 2019 Homeless Count]

For a plan that purports to answer a “social emergency” with a “renewed sense of urgency,” which rejects “business-as-usual” and promises “radical transformation,” it’s a notably complacent document. It doesn’t pose the very obvious questions a responsible, apolitical organization would ask:

  • Where did the billions of dollars San Francisco has spent on the homeless over the past decade go?

  • Previous plans promised to decrease homelessness, but instead it got worse. Where did they go wrong in their assumptions or their execution?

  • What impact did those failures have, for example on the homeless, on San Francisco residents, on taxpayers, on businesses, on tourism, on the housing market, on the cost of living, etc?

  • Who was responsible for those failures, and what consequences have those people faced?

  • What controls have been put in place to ensure those mistakes aren’t repeated?

These are the basic root-cause-analysis questions that get asked after an industrial accident or a near miss on a runway or Fortnite going down for ten minutes. To neglect to ask them in a multi-year, multi-billion dollar plan to address a “social emergency” shows the non-seriousness of the whole effort.

The Theory of Change

The plan going forward is similarly surreal:

The theory of change that drives HSH is known as Housing First... , the notion that all people experiencing homelessness are ready for housing without meeting any preconditions.

Yes, putting people in taxpayer-funded homes means they’re not homeless. That's a truism, not a sustainable plan for ending homelessness. With no preconditions, and no postconditions either, nothing gets recipients on a path to support themselves. After all, whatever was going on in their lives before left them on the streets. Unless this “theory of change” involves something actually changing, how do they ever get out of the safety net?

Nor is there any limiting hypothesis on how much housing taxpayers will stump for. Two thirds of SF’s homeless budget--$200M a year--goes to the no-longer homeless, in the form of rent subsidies, eviction prevention, and 6500 units of permanent supportive housing. That comes nowhere close to meeting demand, as thousands are left on the street.

Not-business-as-usual is oddly complacent about the enormous cost of city-built housing: $500K to $700K per unit. I’m sure it will be very nice when it’s done, but consider that the homeless manage to set up tent villages on their own on a budget of approximately $0 per unit. One doesn’t sense City Hall bringing much creativity to bear on finding incremental solutions for more people.

How about lifting the ludicrous constraints the city puts on private developers over square footage and window size and minimum bike parking and historical aesthetics? Or if San Franciscans must fund Cadillac apartments for tens of thousands, why not at least do it where land and construction costs are cheaper? Such questions are neither answered nor asked.

The Missing Step 2

Let’s suppose the city successfully executes its Housing First strategy. Through public housing projects, “affordable” housing quotas, and rent subsidies, it makes another 8000 units available to get the current homeless population off the street, at a cost of a half billion dollars per year to residents. What then?

If new homelessness cases continue to appear--and no one has suggested why they might stop--how would the situation be significantly different? How could we not still have thousands on the streets, the shelters full, the homeless budget tapped out, and residents still weaving down sidewalks filled with needles and poop? If $200M per year can turn so easily into $500M, why not a billion? Why not two?

In fact, how can this plan fail to increase the risk of homelessness? Whether they’re imposed through taxes or higher market rents, and whether it’s homeowners or landlords or renters or businesses who get the first bill, extracting housing subsidies from the local economy drives up the cost of living for everyone, in what’s already one of the most expensive cities in the country. $500M to prop up those thousands of nearly-homeless residents is the equivalent of raising everyone else’s rent more than $100 per month, inevitably tipping many more families into the red.

Compassion Theater

It’s difficult to read San Francisco’s homeless policy as genuine ownership by competent professionals. It appears to have been pecked out by peacocks more concerned with flourishing their virtues at each other than making an impact on the problem. You know people like this. They will lament the affordable housing shortage but turn out to protest new development. They will insist the homeless are just regular folk who are down on their luck and simultaneously that we can't hold them to any expectations because they're mentally ill. Such people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near public policy decisions.

Not even the strategy's authors appear to expect homelessness to decline as a result. And no one appears curious about what happens when you bleed another billion dollars out of average San Francisco residents.

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