New York Decided To End Street Homelessness, And It Basically Succeeded

As San Francisco continues to allow thousands of people to sleep unsheltered every night, we must learn from other cities that made huge strides in eliminating street homelessness

Every night in San Francisco, more than 4,300 people sleep on our streets and in our parks. It’s one of the most pressing issues we face as a City. Yet for more than 20 years, and after spending billions of dollars, City Government has failed to make a dent in the problem.

Mass street homelessness is not an inevitable consequence of high housing prices or widening inequality. Cities like New York, which also has a housing crisis, provide shelter for almost all those who are homeless. What does New York do differently than San Francisco? They build many more shelter beds and run their shelters more effectively. San Francisco, despite a shelter waiting list of more than 1,000 people, has fewer shelter beds than it did in 2004. That’s why as Supervisor, I will build 3,000 new shelter beds⁹ and 300 new acute care beds for those struggling with mental health issues in San Francisco and for the first time in a long time start getting folks off the street and putting a roof over their head.

New York has far fewer street homeless than SF, so let’s learn from the East Coast city

New York has an extensive shelter network with over 748 locations that house more than 62,000 individuals and families experiencing homelessness every night. This extensive network means New York has an unsheltered homeless rate of 45 per 100,000 residents¹. San Francisco’s rate is 492 per 100,000 residents², almost 11 times as high.

Indeed, in cities across the country, there is a direct correlation between the number of shelter beds provided and the proportion of the homeless population that sleeps on the street. The evidence is clear that shelters get homeless people of the street.

New York’s outcomes-based response

But New York has not only built many more shelter beds than San Francisco, it also employs a much more sophisticated approach to operating shelters. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Performance Incentive Program, for instance, helped create a system that held shelter providers accountable for delivering real results and provided financial rewards to top-performers.

Shelter providers were graded on the number of housing placements, length of client stays, and return-to-shelter rates. Points could be attained for things like signing up clients for benefit programs or filling out paperwork in a timely manner. The scores were published quarterly so providers could compare themselves to their peers. The better a provider did, the better their financial incentive. This resulted in a period of decline in the average length of stay at a shelter³.

As Supervisor, I will adopt this type of performance-based approach to homeless services here in San Francisco. This way City Government will know who’s providing the best services and how, and it can compel other providers to raise their game or be replaced by or partnered with an organization that will do a better job.

New York’s common-sense shelter rules

The rules in New York’s shelters strike a middle ground between the overly restrictive rules in San Francisco’s shelters and the somewhat lax rules that drive up costs in San Francisco’s Navigation Centers⁴. In New York, for instance, residents can bring 2 bags of personal belongings but no pets. San Francisco severely limits what belonging residents can bring into and store in shelters, so that when they’re applying for a job they have to bring all their belongings with them.

In New York, shelters have common areas and guests are allowed during certain hours. People can leave during the day — they are expected to look for a job if they’re able to work, and they receive assistance in that pursuit — but must come back by 10 p.m. in most cases, unless they receive a job-related exemption. All facilities have access to laundry and showers, and residents receive 3 meals a day. New York shelters provide a small platform from which people can rebuild their lives, but are also affordable enough to be able to scale to meet the city’s immense problem.

In San Francisco, there are few common areas in shelters, the shelters are shut during the middle of the day, and City Government has cut in half the number of drop-in centers for homeless people over the past 15 years. That’s one of the reasons you see so many more homeless folks on the streets during the day than at night.

As a result of building enough shelter beds, New York City has the space available to find a shelter bed that same evening for someone sleeping on the street. In San Francisco, it often takes more than a month to get to the front of the 1,000-person waitlist for shelter beds. Recent reports show that for families with children, it can take over 100 days to get into a shelter should they fall into homelessness.

In New York City, the right to a shelter bed that night comes along with an expectation (some would even call it an obligation) of taking that shelter bed and not sleeping on the street.

In San Francisco, on the other hand, the lack of shelter beds has prevented City Government from being able to create a civic consensus that it is unacceptable to sleep on the streets. By building enough shelter beds, we can craft a new civic consensus.

Living in a shelter leads to far better outcomes than living on the streets. Studies have shown that sleeping on the street makes you sicker and increases your chance of death, as compared to sleeping in a shelter⁵. Those sleeping on the streets are less likely to be getting services or enrolled in social safety net programs⁶, and are half as likely to be employed as those in shelters⁷. That helps explain why so few of those who are homeless in San Francisco are employed⁸.

Shelters don’t work for everybody, such as those suffering from acute mental illness. But if they are run effectively, they can provide a good option for thousands of those who would otherwise sleep on our streets every night.

Shelter the unsheltered

For far too long San Francisco City Government has failed the people of this city by letting thousands and thousands sleep on our street every night. Responsibility for this failure, ultimately, rests with the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. We can do better. That’s why I’m running for Supervisor.

As your Supervisor, I will learn from our mistakes, deploy best practices from other cities like New York, and deliver 3,000 new and effectively run shelter beds.

  1. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.page and https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/nyregion/new-york-city-hope-homeless-count-decoys.html
  2. http://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017-SF-Point-in-Time-Count-General-FINAL-6.21.17.pdf and https://sf.curbed.com/2018/3/26/17165370/san-francisco-population-2017-census-increase
  3. PIP started to end in 2012 after the state withdrew approval of the program for family shelter providers and the new de Blasio administration stopped publishing performance reports and doling out incentives for single-adult shelter providers.
  4. San Francisco provides 1,203 shelter beds in traditional shelters and 686 shelter-like beds in Navigation Centers. Navigation Centers cost more to build and operate as traditional shelters ($33K-37K vs. $25K).
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5230839/ and https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/32644540/RONCARATI-DISSERTATION-2016.pdf?sequence=1
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19564231 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10940149
  7. Fig 36, p12 Chicago PIT 2017 Count: https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/fss/supp_info/Homeless/2017PITSummaryReportFinal.pdf
  8. 13% of San Francisco’s homeless population has had full or part-time employment over the past year. [p32 of the 2017 PIT count: http://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017-SF-Point-in-Time-Count-General-FINAL-6.21.17.pdf]
  9. If San Francisco added 3,000 shelter and shelter-like beds to its current total, which includes Navigation Center beds opening and closing in 2018–19, there would be about 4,500 to 4,800 places for the unsheltered homeless population to use to transition out of homelessness. That figure depends on which centers are scheduled to close and when. With a street homeless population of 4,353 at last count in 2017 and at the low end of that shelter bed total, San Francisco would still have a 1–1 ratio of beds per unsheltered population.


Over the coming months leading up to the November election, I will be sharing stories and data about the top challenges we face in San Francisco — from homelessness and property crime to street safety and affordability. I’ll explore tactics used in other cities and whether they resulted in any meaningful changes. I’ll present datasets that offer meaningful insights into what can be done differently by our city government. And I’ll be presenting my comprehensive plans for what I would work on as Supervisor to deal with homelessness, property crime, government effectiveness, and local issues in District 2.

Follow me on Medium, FB, Twitter or sign up to my email list to learn more.


Paid for by Nick Josefowitz for Supervisor 2018. Financial disclosures are available at sfethics.org.

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