San Francisco's Supportive Housing Budget

Although the City of San Francisco has created over 3,000 units of supportive housing since the adoption of its Ten Year Plan “to abolish chronic homelessness” in 2004, and the number of supportive housing units in the city now totals over 4,600, the number of homeless individuals hasn’t declined.  In fact, the number of homeless in San Francisco has increased over the past decade, from an estimated 6,248 in January of 2005 to 6,436 in January of 2013.

And with the cost of developing new housing in the city skyrocketing, and the last Master Lease for subsidized housing approved by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors running $1,190 per unit per month, over 50 percent higher than the next highest cost Master Lease that the city has signed ($791 per unit for the Le Nain Hotel at 730 Eddy Street), San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office has come to the conclusion that the City needs to develop a new plan and approach for combating homelessness in San Francisco.

When the Ten Year Plan was adopted in 2004, it was a step forward in the City’s policies to end chronic homelessness. Previously the City’s model to provide services to the chronically homeless population was the “continuum of care”, in which services, such as substance abuse treatment, were provided to the individual prior to providing housing. Under the Ten Year Plan, the model is “housing first”, in which the City provides permanent supportive housing designed to accommodate the homeless independent of prior history, and support services are provided at the housing site.

The Ten Year Plan considers supportive housing to be permanent and does not discuss whether and how residents may become more self-sufficient, to transition out of intensive housing into other living environments that provide less or no support. The City does not currently assess whether residents of supportive housing can move from housing with a high level of support services into other types of housing. As noted above, residents of supportive housing have access to but are not required to use on-site services, nor do existing performance measures identify the overall improvement in residents’ well-being and self-sufficiency. Existing performance measures also do not adequately track residents’ transition to less-intensive housing, including publicly-funded housing, housing with family or friends, or other types of housing.

The City needs to consider whether intensive supportive housing should always be permanent housing or whether residents can transition from more intensive to less intensive housing.

Last year, San Francisco’s budget for leasing and operating supportive housing in the city was $57,225,474, or roughly $12,925 per unit, a number which does not include any of the costs associated with developing or financing the units themselves.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Sierrajeff

    So the housing costs *alone* total almost $8,900 per homeless person in S.F. (Not per homeless person *housed*, but per all 6,436 homeless people, period.) Add in the other homeless costs (services, police, EMT, etc.), and that number would probably at least double. (And that’s not even counting intangible costs, such as cleaning sidewalks, damages to parks, and lost tourist revenue.)

    Yet we haven’t made a dent in homelessness. Heads should be rolling over this.

  2. Posted by BigV

    We can thank Ronald Reagan for most of our homeless problems — the whole nation can — he is the one who kicked everyone out of the mental hospitals and onto the streets — and the homeless population exploded in the 1980’s as a result. This policy has been a complete failure. Forcing the mentally ill to survive on their erratic wits on the streets seems like a much meaner fate that forcing them to into institutionalized care. I would love to see a return of real mental institutions. It would be better for those who need the help, it would be cheaper (think how much we would save on emergency services!), it would make our streets safer and cleaner.

    obviously there were problems and abuses in the past with mental institutions. I would hope those could be considered and a better system designed. The key point though is that it is terribly unkind to the mentally ill to ask them to fend for themselves and make their own life choices and merely provide access to services. Our current system is a weak avoidance of responsibly and true compassion under the guise of “freedom”.

    • Posted by david m

      yeah, would upvote this if i could. people will chime in about how we should cut off services or whatever but the simple fact is that with the mentally ill, it’s cheaper and more effective simply to house them and if there’s money left over, to treat them. forcing them to fend for themselves, as we have for the past several decades, sets them up for predators, wastes police resources, degrades quality of life for everyone, etc and costs vastly more in the end. system is broken and it’ll take a big move at a higher level than city hall to get us back on something like a right track.

    • Posted by NoeNeighbor

      Actually that is not true. The process of de-institutionalizing the homeless began with the first Governor Brown. The number of mentally ill peaked during his administration at 37,500 and was down to 22,000 when Reagan took office. Beginning in the 1960’s, many believed that new psychiatric drugs made institutionalization unnecessary. Also, the passage of Medicare provided a financial incentive as community care was reimbursed but institutional care was not. And the ACLU (among others) brought legal challenges that made involuntary institutionalization much, much more difficult (and these organization still oppose laws like “Laura’s Law” which seek to institutionalize potentially dangerous homeless people).

      Yes, in 1967 Reagan did sign a bill (which had bi-partisan sponsors and support) that codified much of the changes, but that was bill was reflective of changes to the mentally ill that were going on nationwide. Notably, Jerry Brown made no attempt to repeal those changes when he subsequently took office in 1975. Nor was there any push for him to do so.

      So, while there seems to be certain fixation on the left to blame Reagan for the homeless problem, there really is no basis for that conclusions. Basically in the 60’s and 70’s there was a popular belief (particularly on the left) that widespread institutionalization of the mentally ill was a bad policy and infringed on individual rights. That view drove policy throughout the nation and still informs the debate today.

      • Posted by MrTibbs

        Thank you! Great summary of FACTS rather then partisan blather. I, for one, appreciate the information.

      • Posted by Jake

        Reagans’ great contribution to homelessness happened as President. There is a long long list of his program and budget cuts that increased homelessness, starting with in his first year in office Reagan halved the budget for public housing and Section 8. He also had very lax enforcement of laws to protect people from predatory lending (S&L crisis) and redlining.

        His disinterest reached comical when Reagan greeted the only black member of his Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Samuel Pierce, saying: “How are you, Mr. Mayor? I’m glad to meet you. How are things in your city?” The notoriously incompetent Pierce, nicknamed “Silent” Sam by the press because he was almost never heard from, was the only cabinet member to serve the full 8 years of the Reagan Presidency.

        Not only did Reagan cut HUD funding for low income housing, a good share of what was left was illegally handed out to Republican contributors to Reagan’s campaign in what is known as the HUD big rigging scandal. 16 people were convicted including almost all the top people at HUD and Sec of Interior James Watt. A major review undertaken by Pierce’s successor as secretary, Jack Kemp, uncovered “significant problems” of fraud, theft, mismanagement, and influence-peddling in 94 percent of HUD’s budget. Estimated losses from this abuse ranged from $2 billion to $6 billion. And that is in 1980s dollars.

        In 1984 on Good Morning America, Reagan said “people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”
        Many things, political acts and actors have gone into the stew that has made for so much homelessness in America, but R.W. Reagan is the capo both for his direct acts as President and for establishing even enshrining an attitude of neglect.

        • Posted by NoeNeighbor

          Why is homelessness a problem that has to be solved by the federal government? Reagan actually converted may programs to block grants so that states could solve the problems as they saw fit. Many have done a much, much better job than California and San Francisco.

          • Posted by Sierrajeff

            Because if you’re homeless, you want to be in California, not South Dakota. Why should California have to shoulder the disproportionate burden? Besides, it’s federal laws which require states to treat everyone within their borders equally. If California could say “sorry, you’re not a California resident so we don’t have to provide services for you”, then maybe it’d make more sense for states alone to shoulder the burden. But that’s just not the case.

    • Posted by bus rider

      Our collective indifference or outright support of our nation’s wars also indirectly contributes to homelessness. How many vets return from war (Vietnam, Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq – the list goes on) ill-prepared to cope with their PTSD and eventually become homeless as a result?

  3. Posted by zzzzzzzzzzz

    As long as SF continues providing a vastly disproportionate amount of ssocial services coupled with lax law enforcement, the homeless problem simply will not budge. Period.

  4. Posted by Edward

    I’d like to see more invested in realistic programs to help the homeless get back in the workforce and be self sufficient. If we only focus on housing, the problem will never end as we attract way more homeless than we can ever house.

  5. Posted by Indeed

    Can anyone answer this. Is there a means test for funding non-profits that are working in the homeless sector?

  6. Posted by anon

    Blaming Reagan? Please. As if any democrat has been prohibited from changing the situation for the last 30 years. Might as well have blamed Columbus for discovering the new world in the first place.

    Housing is not going to make a difference. The vast majority of homeless are either drug addicts or have serious mental issues. The ones I see where I live probably don’t know what planet they’re on, let alone what year it is.

    • Posted by kbbl

      Calm down. The case study data on supportive housing is actually compelling. (I namelinked an easily found story from Canada.) The problem with San Francisco’s approach, as with most things the city does, is to throw down oodles of money at a good-in-theory idea without any measurability or accountability for ensuring the the plan is good in practice.

      But yes, blaming Reagan is an exhausting trope by people too afraid to analyze practical consequences of their own idealism. Please just don’t make the same mistakes as the people you’re trying to critique.

  7. Posted by EssEff

    I have no idea what the current situation is with the non-profits, but SF Weekly put this out five years ago this week: http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/the-worst-run-big-city-in-the-us/Content?oid=2175354

    It’s an infuriating read.

    • Posted by david m

      yeah, and then we went ahead and put the top man, the head of the city’s bureaucracy, edwin lee, into the mayor’s seat. he wasn’t even a mayor captured by the bureaucracy, he actually moved from the bureaucracy right into the mayor’s seat.

  8. Posted by Brad

    If you build it, they will come.

  9. Posted by ck

    here is a plan, let’s use some of that that money to buy up some land in a part of CA that is cheap. Build housing and treatment facilities there, hire the staff to run them and get people off the streets with the help they need…

    • Posted by SFInsanity

      Are you proposing that the city purchase land outside of SF, then export anyone deemed as mentally unfit to reside here to be exiled to a camp? We have some excellent mental health professionals in SF, and I don’t think they would want to commute to a concentration camp outside of Bakersfield or Stockton.

      The homeless problem is a specifically local one, and the system we have in place needs streamlining and a management overhaul. There is plenty of housing, but there needs to be a better ratio of case workers to clients. One case worker I often go out for drinks with says she has 300 clients. I’m not sure how she can possibly address each person with the care they require. Some of her clients actively attempt to defraud the system too, so there needs to be a keen eye on who is actually in need. Not to mention a lot of other corruption and incompetency I hear about that goes from top to bottom in this town.

      • Posted by frog

        The answer is, yes, send them away. We have the highest construction costs, the highest land values and the highest costs of employment anywhere in the country (excluding Manhattan) so why would we want to locate such facilities here? These people can get better care at a cheaper cost pretty much anywhere else. Besides, the homeless population is very much not only a local issue.

        As a tax payer to both California and SF, I fully support CK’s idea. It would clean up the city and save money at the same time.

        • Posted by typical

          Now that’s the holiday spirit!

          • Posted by frog

            San Francisco is one of the worst places to celebrate the holidays. We’d have to send them to somewhere with snow for that. Maybe somewhere outside of Boston might be nice. Or maybe Bethlehem. Pennsylvania, I mean.

            I don’t mean to joke, because this is about dealing with people’s lives and I know that many people are down on their luck. But the vast majority of people that go through SF’s homeless outreach system are only there for about 3 months before being placed in a program that will lead towards full time employment – this is great. We do have a unique tolerance for the hard core homeless that other places don’t seem to have. This includes drug users, the mentally ill, and the lifestyle homeless (as well as insane laws that force sex offenders to be homeless as well). For these groups, we have to figure out what to do. And then there are people with other problems, such as permanent disabilities that cause pain or that require job accommodations, which are yet another class of homeless people.

            It’s not a matter of just making their lives miserable. It’s about directing money to where it will do some good and yes, not tolerating behaviors that make the lives of others worse.

          • Posted by Sierrajeff

            And what’s wrong with it? Seriously, if local homeless people had family here who gave a d*mn, they’d be with those families already. But if all you’re doing is hanging out at Justin Herman Plaza while you wait for the shelter to open, what’s the difference if instead you’re someplace that’s nicer and safer and greener, because we could afford to do more someplace that’s cheaper?

        • Posted by 7 by 7

          The only thing I’d add to this, is WHY is it just urban taxpayers saddled with this responsibility? Isn’t this a FEDERAL issue? Answer: there are too many red-state senators out there from crappy little states with less population than SF for that to be a possibility for a long time to come. So the Feds won’t budge on this and we’re likely stuck in this situation for a while.

        • Posted by Brian M

          I hear the facilities at Manzanar could be very efficiently and cheaply restored!

          • Posted by MarketSt

            Oh trump card, you invoked Manzanar. As if subjecting addicts and mentally ill to a life on city streets isn’t its own horror show. In 100 years, they will look back on this as our generation’s shame. The fact is, we have to take a different approach. It will never scale to put every addict that shows up on a greyhound into housing in San Francisco. Nor should we try. The idea that urban centers should be a delivery point for housing the poor and unemployable is a relic from the suburbanization era of the 50’s and 60’s. Manzanar was forced detainment. Where you choose to deliver homeless services has nothing to do with forced detainment.

      • Posted by ck

        @SfInsanity, when you say “reside here” does living on the streets here really qualify as residing? If it is a choice, why not offer actual stable housing / shelter, and a full slate of services for any chronic conditions? @$12k per month per person I bet it would 1) go a hell of lot farther in a place where housing can be a lot cheaper (hey rent in Auburn is about $1200 a month for a decent place) 2) take the money saved on housing and hire care (I bet the case worker ratio could be reduced 100x). Why commute when the care can be local? 3) create a lower density solution which would likely help with the various substance abuse issues.
        The current system is broken, what we are doing isn’t working, though my suggestion is mostly tongue in cheek, it is worth thinking in a different way, because 30+ years of progressive thought hasn’t done much.
        P.S. the homeless problem is not local, a lot of towns buy bus passes for their homeless and ship them here.

        • Posted by Alai

          Where do you get $12k/month? I only see $12k/unit/year.

          “lower density solution which would likely help with the various substance abuse issues” — meth seems to do pretty well in rural areas.

  10. Posted by katdip

    Sorry, but you are not able to ship people off to other places. We still have freedom of movement in this country, and we’re well past the age where you can say “Get out of Dodge before Sundown……” And it’s not just about economics People stay here for a lot of reasons – weather, family, vibe, generous benefits, health care. From an economists’ perspective, these are economically rational (in terms of utility) reasons for staying here, and few of them can be influenced by government.

    Since you can’t “make” them leave, the policy question is severalfold: do you make sure they have the minimum necessary to not die on the street (e.g. shelters at night, trips to the emergency room, etc.), do you try to get them housed and stabilized and hope they eventually move out (e.g. supportive housing, SROs), or do you make their miserable lives more miserable by taking away services and hope they leave on their own (e.g. sit/lie, no bathrooms, cut General Assistance)? I would argue we’ve tried all of these in different measures, and can’t say that any have worked.

    So in the end, we do the best we can, using a little of each.

    • Posted by Anon

      we have never tried your option b to its full extent.

    • Posted by frog

      Generous benefits and health care are certainly things that are directly influenced by the government. As are loitering laws and the enforcement of them.

      We have mostly tried carrots with very few sticks (except the lack of restrooms which is a very odd stick to try – and then we foisted that one onto hotels and other public places.)

      Raise my taxes, but hold the non-profits accountable, fix what can be fixed and also implement real sticks. I’m fine with paying for people to get off the street. I’m fine with paying my fair share or more than my fair share. I am very lucky and can afford an extra couple thousand dollars a year. But we spend more per homeless person than anywhere else and we still have our current mess with no progress made. Tolerance of the existing conditions is really what you are advocating for and that’s intolerable. We need something to change.

      • Posted by Sierrajeff

        Very well said. I’m happy to pay taxes for functioning shelters and a functioning assistance program. And I’m also happy to pay taxes to jail people who break laws over things like public urination and defecation. The two are not mutually exclusive; I can be sympathetic and want to help people, while wanting to help and protect my city too.

  11. Posted by katdip

    I didn’t mean to sound like I’m tolerating the existing system. I’m as frustrated as all of you. While I consider myself on the fairly far left, I am just getting sick of our streets looking like Calcutta (literally, people in rags with open sores begging), avoiding the Main Library, and encountering the hostile/drunk/mentally ill every day on the streets. I was just pointing out that the answers are far more complex than shipping people to Fresno. Unfortunately I think the City is mired in politics of the status quo, with groups like the Homeless Coalition rejecting any quality of life enforcement as “criminalizing the poor.” We need to strike a far better bargain – provide more mental health care, more substance abuse treatment, more supportive housing, more drop-in shelters and homeless “living rooms”; and in exchange have higher expectations of behavior. Just shunting people out of sight doesn’t work – the NY Times had a great series on the horrific conditions in the shelters Bloomberg set up to “solve” the NYC homeless problem.

    • Posted by frog

      On this, I agree with you completely. I don’t want to marginalize people and I think social services should be provided with compassion. And I like paying taxes. I just want to know that my money is going to solve problems in a real and meaningful way. I think that non-profits should have to provide metrics and then meet or exceed goals every year with the best and most efficient ones getting most of the money over time. (Most of us work in a world similar to that already.) This is something that the non-profit community has mostly refused to do. If they were getting foundation grant money, they would absolutely need to do evaluations of the type that SF doesn’t require.

      If we had a homeless czar that came up with a plan that required an additional 40 million to really make a giant dent in the problem, that’s only about 50 bucks per resident. I’m good for 20x that. The problem is that we don’t seem to have anyone strongarming this problem in any meaningful way. We have consensus and committees and partnerships and all that other feel good stuff.

      (And all of the above goes for our public transit system too.)

  12. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    This should be addressed at a state or national level. Homelessness originates uniformly across the population. Yet SF and to a slightly lesser extent Oakland and San Jose host the highest concentration of support services. Shouldn’t Sunnyvale, Pleasanton, and other ‘burbs carry their weight? Posher locales can help out even if it makes no sense to site supportive housing in Belvedere. Fund the solution if you can’t host it.

    Communities that ignore this problem should do some soul searching.

    • Posted by Beatrice Plotter

      I have an uncle who is institutionalized in the East Bay. I met him when he came to America with his family back when I was in high school. He was the nicest man you could ever meet: always had a smile on his face, was never cross with anyone, and was genuinely warm and kind-hearted. He looked almost identical to my mom. He would get extremely fearful sometimes because he thought he saw Communist soldiers (when nobody was there.) My uncle was mentally tortured by them.

      By all accounts, he is happy and well in the institution. His family keeps him in a bubble by not telling him his wife died of cancer many years ago or his only sister had passed away. So I am glad that the state is taking good care of him.

  13. Posted by Beatrice Plotter

    All valid points and counter-points made. After being in SF for several decades, I just find living somewhere else much easier on my remaining days here on earth. Homelessness existed before I was born and will be here after I am gone. Call me selfish but self-preservation and the pursuit of happiness rank at the top of my list. If overall social good and my interests align, all the better.

  14. Posted by san FronziScheme (formerly known as lol)

    I think this policy is working perfectly and we should scale up. The homeless population is healthily growing since we are lucky enough to be a magnet of the downtrodden and have a bright future ahead of us as the word of our success spreads across the nation. One major challenge is that we need to give housing to the ones we have today at a much faster pace to make room for the next waves of imports. Only by being more compassionate can we become the true homeless capital of the country, if not the world!

    • Posted by moto mayhem

      hey buddy, they’re giving free housing away in SF. Why are we sleeping on the streets of fresno, las vegas, pheonix, chicago, etc.? lets get in line for the gravy train

  15. Posted by ph_goat

    Park a retired ocean cruise ship (or military craft) on a dock. Provide beds and office space for all social services/non-profits as well as a clinic on board. Just a thought.

    • Posted by san FronziScheme (formerly known as lol)

      Funny, there is a project to do that by creating a tech incubator floating city. With tech workers…

  16. Posted by moto mayhem

    im all for privatizing social services. Google would do a much better job of managing this than would SF. They actually use analytics and metrics to measure performance, and employees are accounting for meeting goals and getting their jobs done. Plus, they are universally smarter than anyone working in city govt.

    • Posted by san FronziScheme (formerly known as lol)

      Smarter doesn’t mean better. A smarter cook might not be a better cook.

      • Posted by moto mayhem

        good point. I meant smarter, harder working, more competent and more accountable. i think the average google employee and certainly sr. mgmt pretty much beats out every city worker in all 4 of these categories.

  17. Posted by JR "Bob" Dobbs

    SF’s primary wastefulness problem stems from the fact that it relies on an army of non-profits who have no incentive whatsoever to improve someone’s situation to the point where they don’t need ts services any longer. If that happened, SF would cut the non-profit’s funding.

    Nobody with the city even attempts to measure what is effective and steer dollars toward those resources. And the recipients (non-profits) not only fail to develop any such metrics but have every incentive not to be efficient or effective.

    The only thing that will change this is a state law, or local ballot initiative, that prohibits a social services provider from receiving city funds unless it has a concrete and valid plan to objectively measure results, and then funding is cut off if those results are not met.

    I don’t mind paying to help people. I do not like throwing money down the toilet.

  18. Posted by AnalyzeVotes

    Maybe a lot of the politicians make secret profit from these non-profit organization? Big government fosters corruption. All the communist countries have extreme corruption. Political leaders grab power by promising everyone will get the same sized pie. But in reality, everyone gets a tiny sized pie and everyone is in hunger. The political leaders got power and a large pie. Eventually, they simply take away the wealth belonging to the public.

    I hope SF supervisors are not playing the same game. I know, SF is still under state law and federal law. However, SF supervisors can secretly reward people who supported them; they can also get hired by various non-profit after their term.

  19. Posted by Beatrice Plotter

    I would like to know the real costs of doing business in SF sans the corruption and back room deal surcharge. If privitizing something could lead to the removal of these extraneous costs with better/higher quality of services, I am all for it.

  20. Posted by katdip

    Sadly, privatizing almost always ends up costing more that having public sector workers do the work. The profit motive is a powerful force for extracting maximum money for minimal service. There are numerous examples – private prisons, defense contractors, for profit charter schools, etc. And with that profit motive comes much political power to get the best deal for the private sector – Google “Chicago parking meter deal” to see a prime example. My sense is backroom deals happen more often with private contractors, and usually for far more money than the non-profit sector gets.

    Having worked in government at all levels, I can state categorically that most public employees are not earning kickbacks or milking the system for financial gains. The high use of non-profits to deliver public services is a result of political decisions to NOT hire more city workers (the non-profit workers are far cheaper), plus a strong political presence in this city for those organizations. And the relative sympathy for their poor performance is tied to generally benevolent motives on the part of public employees – someone has to do the job, the City doesn’t have enough staff to do it, and the non-profits are often “in the community.” Add to that the political support these organizations have in the halls of power, and few public employees are going to stick their neck out and say some of the non-profits are useless (some actually are quite effective at what they do).

    There is a huge opportunity to improve efficiency and deliver better results, but that would require a strong leader with a clear plan and political will to make things better. Sadly Ed Lee is not the right person for that job.

  21. Posted by Happily homeless in SF

    Thanks to all the kind hearted folks in San Francisco and our stupid politicians, San Francisco is a magnet for homeless people. Many homeless people move to San Francisco from all over the country. The more we care, the more they come. Most homeless people did not grow up in San Francisco. They move here just to get the benefits. As other cities offer one-way tickets to their homeless people to San Francisco, we welcome them with open arms. Let’s build more homeless shelter. The more we build, the more they’ll come

    • Posted by kind hearted in San Francisco

      Thanks to all the kind hearted folks in San Francisco and our politicians, San Francisco is a magnet for people. Many people move to San Francisco from all over the country. The more we care, the more they come. Most people did not grow up in San Francisco. They move here to get the benefits. We welcome them with open arms. Let’s build more. The more we build, the more they’ll come

    • Posted by katdip

      Oh come on. People – both indigent and not -come here for all sorts of reasons,. It’s beautiful, the weather is mild, it’s tolerant to difference (except poverty, at least on this board), we have plentiful medical marijuana and other illicit substances, and there are lots of opportunities. From my experience with homeless folk (limited to volunteering in shelters and knowing lots of social workers), few come here for the “benefits” – many stay on the streets because the shelters are crowded and dangerous, there is little chance of permanent housing, our General Assistance is very low. The biggest benefit is that our City is relatively gentle on these folks – we allow them to shower at the library (not actually allowed but not rigorously prosecuted), we ship them to a high-quality ER if they are passed out, we don’t want to fill our jail with sit/lie scofflaws, etc. The only way to stem the inflow would be to make this place VERY unfriendly, invoking a Gary Busey level of harshness and enforcement that would never fly politically or be acceptable morally. Anything else is tinkering around the edges. If we assume that they will be with us, it behooves us to find adequate services, treatment, and housing to 1) allow them to retain/attain human dignity and 2) keep their presence from significantly degrading the quality of life for other residents and visitors.

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