Shireen McSpadden. Director of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. DHSH. Manny's.
Shireen McSpadden, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, speaks at a Q&A on Tuesday, Aug. 10, at Manny's, the cafe, political bookstore and community hub on 16th and Valencia streets. (Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz / Mission Local)

With San Francisco budgeting $1.1 billion for its Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing over the next two years, the department’s director spoke about her plans for what’s to come Tuesday evening at a Q&A hosted by Manny’s Cafe at 16th and Valencia streets.  

Director Shireen McSpadden, formerly the city’s head of the Department of Disability and Aging Services, took over the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing about two and a half months ago.

Housing, of course, is at the top of her list, and she plans to spend $417 million to create permanent supportive housing by acquiring new buildings and funding subsidies to support people in permanent supportive housing. 

The next big priority, she told Mission Local, is preventing homelessness with assistance such as rental subsidies — and she has slated nearly $150 million for those efforts.

The department, which has around 150 staff, will also hire 65 new people, she added.

“The problem is much deeper … than the 8,000 (homeless residents) plus the 12,000 (in permanent supportive housing) that we have,” McSpadden said.

The Q&A was part of owner Manny Yekutiel’s series “What We Learned,” where he and audience members ask local leaders about what they’ve learned over the Covid-19 pandemic and what’s to come. The following comprises a condensed, edited portion of the Q&A.

Yekutiel: What do you say to the person who’s like, “You know what? The problem is San Francisco. We just make it too easy for somebody to be homeless. We’re gonna spend a billion dollars to house all these people — that means that more people are going to come so they can get free housing. That’s not right. If we keep spending all this money to house people, then more people are going to come here to get housing.” What do you say to those people?

McSpadden:  People come to cities. One of the things we know is 40 percent of our population of homeless people in San Francisco is African American. As I think people know, that population is less than 5 percent of our total population. It’s an incredible disparity. If people are coming here because we have some access, and they’re African American — I mean, this homelessness, part of it was created due to systemic racism, due to redlining, due to all the way back to slavery — there are so many reasons that people are homeless if they’re Black, if they’re brown. And, in my opinion, it’s our responsibility to handle that … The majority of people we see here, they were residents here, they were displaced here, they’re San Franciscans.

There’s a large number of queer people — particularly queer youth, when we think about trans folks — who really need housing and need supports and services. People drift to cities … because they’re not safe or welcome, where they came from. So yes, people come to cities, they come to cities without resources, they sometimes end up homeless. 

Yekutiel: As a proportion of our city, it isn’t actually the case that we have a disproportionate amount of homeless folks — it’s just that we have a disproportionate amount of unsheltered homeless folks … In New York, people must have a bed for them, whereas we do not have this right to shelter. Why is it taking us so long to build adequate shelter beds so that, at the very least, no one should not have a bed to go to at night? 

McSpadden: So, that’s a controversial idea. New York does it, and they definitely then can tell people that they can’t be on the street. That’s the way they’ve chosen to handle that. I think San Francisco has a very different set of advocates and philosophies about that. Shelter is not for everyone, necessarily. And I mean, we know, too, that … I think of the adult population, like 40 percent or 50 percent of the adult population is 50 or older. The older people do poorly — poorly — in shelter. 

Yekutiel: But isn’t that better than an older person being on the street?

McSpadden: Sometimes, yes. But it’s a hard question. I think the other issue that we have here is in New York, they have the boroughs, and they have a lot more space. And when you start to think about the space where they put things like shelters, it’s a lot more affordable. 

Yekutiel: “What do you think the policy solution should be to folks who are living in their vehicles? Do we even think it’s a problem that needs a solution? 

McSpadden: I think people living in their cars need support, just like other people need support, people on the street need support … What we’re planning on for this year is to create two what we call safe parking (sites) — one of them is going to be in Bayview … Basically, there’s an area by Candlestick Point that has become a vehicle area where people are living in their vehicles. And essentially, what we’re going to try to do is have a place in the park where people can have their vehicles, where they can get some services where we can get them assessed for housing, and start that process with them if we haven’t already … We’ll also be able to provide bathrooms and showers and things that people need, so that they’re not using the area where they are … (Note: The Department of Homelessness told Mission Local the planned Bayview safe parking site will have around 120 spots. The location of the second safe parking site is still being decided.)

Yekutiel: What would you advise to people … [who wish] to be a part of helping solve this problem?

McSpadden: We have a number of amazing nonprofit organizations in San Francisco … You can give money, you can be on a board, you can go volunteer and actually work with homeless people. There are so many ways that San Franciscans can get involved. And, I urge people to do that. I think that this network is really what supports the homelessness response system. I mean, it’s our department, we have staff, we do direct work as well — but it’s the nonprofit network that really supports it. (Audience members — some of them department staff members and homelessness advocates — recommended multiple nonprofit organizations, including The Gubbio Project, Compass Family Services, Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, Dish, Salvation Army, and Back On My Feet. Other organizations are Dolores Street Community Services, Coalition on Homelessness and Centro del Pueblo)

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David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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  1. It will be quite a revealing test to see if we can actually make a dent in homelessness with $2 Billion. If we can’t, then clearly we are using the wrong strategies, and need to rethink our overall approach. It will be an indictment of the city government and the non-profit social services complex if that money gets spent and citizens see no discernible difference on the streets.

    1. There aren’t really any “services” actually happening. It’s a huge facade, this Dept. of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. It’s an industry and they are doing well for themselves. Not this one, but last article it was 120 staff, adding 80 more.

      Crisis Timeline:

      3 18.20 Newsom closes state campgrounds and counties do the same. The campground we were living in (in the Delta, on Sherman Island) was shut down. Our RV fuel pump went out. Husband 68 w/ liver cancer. We just needed a repair job, or time to get money ourselves. We were made to abandon our RV home of 8 years because the County worker filed a complaint against me with the Adult Protective Services in irder to forse my husband to accept hospice care. He was on the transplant list at UCSF with me as his liver donor. This county move FORCED us to accept space Project Roomkey in Sacramento. I tried constantly to get back to our RV, but three months later, we were moved to a filthy, spider-infested FEMA trailer at CalExpo;

      7.07.20 my husband of 28 years died;

      10.14.20 living in my SUV near Ocean Beach (returned to SF because we lived here from 1997 to 2013);

      11.16.20 ask City for help;

      11.18.20 part of a “sweep” of 15 unhoused people in a mix or RVs, cars, and tents – on video, only offered a cot at Moscone City (in a pandemic);

      12.23.20 recovered my RV (alone) and living in it, although still broke-down and now no current tags;

      4.14.21 City agrees to help me;

      5.04.21. SFMTA announces they will begin to tow unregistered vehicles like mine;

      6.01.21 I have jumped through all the hoops and have all the “moving pieces” in place for a move to a Mendocino RV park I can afford $400 on my SSI budget of $957, once I am assisted into it (which requires registered RV);

      6.23.21 I had to cancel my mastectomy because City “waiting on paperwork”;

      7.09.21 in an email, City approves the plan;

      8.02.21 City now wants a new paper from the RV park they never asked for before;

      8.05.21 last time I heard anything from anyone. I am sick with worry. Anxiety feeds cancer? Well, mine feasts every day.

      Do you have any idea how hard it is to live in constant fear of having your home snatched, I don’t go to my lab appointments or dr visits because I am terror of SFMTA. I pull together a plan, as required. It gets approved and these kafkaesque players keep adding requirements. While I have to put off radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

    2. How can we make a “dent” in something that is not a fixed target? How ignorant or complicit in the fictional narrative, does one have to be, to not realize and see from past evidence, that no matter how many people we house ….. more will keep showing up to claim some “FREE” housing or services? “Services” is causation. I was recently in Athens, Milano and Firenze. There are no tent camps anywhere. Vagrants will take what space you allow them to take… not allowing them, is the only solution.

  2. Ok, so NY’s strong arm approach to shelters isn’t acceptable, but why can’t we build a humane shelter system that still prioritizes getting people off the street, for their benefit and the benefit of the community at large? Mostly because our pendulum has swung too far toward “personal freedom” rather than “social responsibility”. Essentially we’re saying that the mentally ill, addicted, or homeless by choice have every right to take up public rights of way, threaten passers bye, excrete, with no recourse. COVID has shown we are capable of supplying shelter (i.e.hotel rooms) for any homeless person who wants one, so those who are on the street don’t want to be housed, or only want to be housed on their own terms. Fine, build prefab hotels at Candlestick with all the socially acceptable services (e. g. harm reduction wing, abstinent wing, mental health support, food, counseling etc), but require people either go there or take one of the thousand other services offered by the City. Yes that costs money, but $2 Billion should go a long way to paying for that.

    1. Isn’t it ironic that we have focused on social responsibility as opposed to personal freedom when it comes to requiring vaccination for Covid-19 for indoor activities and for government work (which I support, by the way), among other things? Shouldn’t we apply the same social responsibility argument to homelessness as we do vaccination? After all, more homeless people have died from drug overdoses during the last 18 months than have died from Covid. I guess being intellectually consistent is too much to ask (or doesn’t fit the homelessness industrial complex narrative).

  3. “Shelter is not for everyone, necessarily.”

    Well, if the city is going to endorse sidewalk camping then the people should expect sidewalk camping to continue, despite the billions being spent on homelessness and services.

    1. Of course, for 30 years now the more San Francisco spends, the more intractable the “homeless” situation gets. It mirrors the 20 years and trillions spent in Afghanistan. Government is proven inept over and over.

  4. Yesterday, Wednesday August 11th, I took my 8 year-old to the Super Duper burger on Market Street in the Castro like we’ve done dozens of times before (they f’d up his order but that is another matter). We ordered and sat outside –it was a beautiful SF day (warm, no smoke). Unfortunately, the bus stop adjacent to our outdoor dining was overrun with a group of frightening and young looking homeless Caucasians. Their dogs and “belongings” spread out all over the place. The scene was nasty and included some foul or perhaps illegal dog ownership. The 8 year old did not like this at all. This wasn’t the nodding off variety of street inhabitance but rather lively and unpredictable. Without much thought, I decided we would take our chances with Covid inside rather than remaining outside trying to keep one eye on the ragamuffins while eating lunch. Later, upon reflection, my first thought was, “huh? That’s right I have seen a lot of “bus stop takeovers” lately,” concluding that with low ridership (Pandemic), Bus Stop sites are now “fair game” and further concluding that San Francisco is a city that requires it’s bus riders to maintain the use of their own bus stops. Remind me again, what is the bus riding demographic of SF? I guess it all makes sense–we live in a Wild West of city infrastructure. Just as tech bros subvert the streets, with scooters, apps, or robot cars, the bus riders are tasked with making the streets safe via approximation.

    Based on my little experience, street homelessness — sites and boundaries—are dictated by the income of SF neighbors, SF business owners, types of business, cars, buses, trees, street furniture. Is this better or worse than using the 1.1 billion to manage large outdoor city-provided shelter sites (for those unable to use indoor sites). And what of policing the repercussions of non-compliance?

    Thank you Mission Local for continuing this dialogue.

    1. I am so sad (and concerned) to read your comment.

      Unfortunately, as of Monday, Muni will have a lot of teenagers riding alone to school for the first time in 18 months, not to mention families with younger children.

      Who is going to help keep my teenagers safe while they wait for the bus, or get off the bus to continue on their way? With the extraordinary rise in violence toward people who identify as AAPI, where is safety for them at those same places?

      San Francisco has written off its families with older children and its elders.

  5. Wow. How was MENTAL HEALTH not mentioned once. The homeless problem is a MENTAL HEALTH problem. Until there are adequate resources for everyone around MENTAL HEALTH, this problem, and many others, is not going to be solved. It is so disappointing and disheartening to see that doesn’t even appear to have been part of the discussion.

    1. Hello Mitch,

      It was discussed to a degree, but this is a condensed Q&A, so I decided against including the portions about mental health because they mainly concerned conservatorships and new treatment beds for residents who experience mental health or substance abuse issues, and most of what was said about both had already been published in bigger news outlets. Hope that makes sense.


      1. As far as I can tell, our progressive SF “leaders” are against conservatorship (I.e., requiring people who are incapable of making decisions in their best interest to seek medical treatment) and these “leaders” find it more compassionate to give them the freedom to live in filth and die underfoot on our streets.

        Exposing this hypocrisy would help change that position.

  6. David,

    Homeless basketball league?

    Couple of years ago a high ranking City official responded to my question as to what he was going to do about the wasted little park (McFadden, I think) on Valencia under the freeway.

    He said:

    “It looks like a nice spot for a basketball court.”


    Since this guy was responsible for building the highly successful dog and skateboard park across the street I thought it might really happen.

    Not yet.

    Go Giants!


  7. “I think the other issue that we have here is in New York, they have the boroughs, and they have a lot more space.” Absolute bullshit. She is making crap up and knows she’s a big fat liar.

    NY population divided by square miles = 8.419 million/302.6 = 27,822 people per square mile

    SF population divided by square miles = 874,961/46.87 square miles = 18,677 people per square mile

    NY has roughly 50% more people per square mile which makes it way more crowded than San Francisco.

  8. Gee, too bad there weren’t any follow up questions given the Director’s ramble responses. Really?, my property tax $’s are going toward civil war restitution and resolving redlining to any and all comers to SF? How about speaking to sharing the burden regionally if not beyond? And what exactly are these 65 new employees going to be doing?

    1. Agreed. And if we are arguing about cost-of-living, factor in property taxes. Even if SF pols are only advocating for renters, there is a trickle down factor. Landlords build property tax into rent. If you’re going to use property taxes to subsidize homeless individuals, you are only making things worse for EVERYBODY, and it’s going to create a feedback loop that draws even more people that draw even more funds. This restitution argument does not belong in this calculus.