San Francisco Weighs Continuing Homeless Encampment Program That Costs $60k Per Tent Each Year
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: An aerial view of San Francisco's first temporary sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless on May 18, 2020 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Elected officials in San Francisco will soon decide whether the city should keep spending millions on “safe sleeping villages” for homeless people as its COVID-19 emergency response winds down.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s homelessness department “is pushing to continue an expensive tent encampment program that it says is crucial for keeping people off the sidewalks, despite its high price tag of more than $60,000 per tent, per year.” The outlet reported that “the program currently costs $18.2 million for about 260 tents,” and “the department is now asking for $15 million in the upcoming fiscal year for a similar number of tents, which amounts to about $57,000 per tent per year.”

Some of the sites are operated by nonprofits, while the tent program is entirely financed through a business tax measure overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018.

“If the funding is approved, San Francisco will pay about twice the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment for people to sleep in tents for the second year in a row,” the Chronicle reported.

The city established six safe sleeping villages during the pandemic to provide a place for homeless people to social distance, sleep, receive three meals a day, maintain personal hygiene, and have access to social services. There are rented bathroom and shower facilities at the sites and 24-hour security — amenities that absorb most of the costs.

“It is a big deal to have showers and bathrooms, and I don’t dispute that,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen at a recent Budget and Finance Appropriations Committee meeting. “But the cost just doesn’t make any sense.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that “people from a needle exchange frequently visit” one of the sites where “a canopy offers people a shaded space to charge their phones.”

The Chronicle provides more details:

The discussion comes as the city prepares to wind down its homeless hotel program, which is currently sheltering about 2,000 people. While the homeless department has promised that every hotel resident will be offered a housing placement, the city is still grappling with a tight housing market and limited shelter options for the thousands on its streets.

Shireen McSpadden, director of the department, said group shelters are still not allowed to operate at full capacity, despite [Democratic Mayor London] Breed lifting all other COVID-19 restrictions on June 15.

The department said it is still “reviewing” federal shelter health guidelines and waiting on state public health guidance to “finalize the local shelter reopening plan and timeline.” The capacity reductions are significant: For example, there are currently only 91 guests allowed at the 200-bed Navigation Center on the Embarcadero, the department said.

Because of the shelter limitations and the upcoming closure of some hotels, McSpadden said she feels “strongly” that the city should maintain the tent program at its current level.

Many transients prefer the sites to some temporary housing programs with curfews and strict rules, saying they have the freedom to come and go as they choose.

According to officials, some estimate that San Francisco’s homeless population is close to 20,000 people, and the villages have reduced the number of tents and large encampments on city streets.

Jeff Kositsky previously ran the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and is now in charge of its unsheltered homeless response. In May, he told the L.A. Times that the situation “has to do with the failures of our brand of capitalism, institutional racism” and “a broken behavioral health system.”

“What we’re trying to do is manage a really deep systemic issue where homelessness is a very visual depiction of our failures as a society,” he said.

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