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)