The One Stat That Explains SF’s Street Homeless Crisis

San Francisco has fewer shelter beds today than in 2004; we should be moving in the opposite direction — and fast — to end street homelessness

Nick Josefowitz
May 17, 2018 · 7 min read

Every night in San Francisco, more than 4,300 people sleep on our streets and in our parks. Compared to either our population or our geographic area, San Francisco has the highest rate of street homelessness in the country. City Government’s response to this crisis has been an unmitigated failure.

Mass street homelessness is not an inevitable consequence of high housing prices, widening inequality, or federal policies from Reagan’s de-institutionalizing to Trump’s cuts to housing subsidies. Many other cities across the United States have high housing costs, like New York, and still provide shelter for almost all of those who are homeless. That’s why as Supervisor, I will build 3,000 new shelter beds 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. No more excuses.

In 2004, City Government released its 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. It championed a “housing first” approach in which city resources would be focused on building housing units, along with providing services, for people experiencing homelessness. The plan was to shut down all of the shelters by 2014 and create enough supportive housing to eliminate the need for shelters entirely¹. It was the height of wishful thinking.

By 2010, the 2004 plan envisioned 3,000 new supportive housing units for those exiting homelessness. City Government never reached that goal, creating only 2,700 units by 2014. But even if it had, it wouldn’t have been nearly enough to shelter everyone in need. And in the meantime, City Government shut down shelters and reduced the number of shelter beds available for single adults by a third, from 1,910 in 2004 to 1,203 today. More recently, the City has very gradually started to build new shelters, called Navigation Centers, but even if you add in all the beds scheduled to be created in these facilities over the coming years we would still have fewer shelter-like beds available every night than in 2004.

Because City Government couldn’t create nearly enough supportive housing and was shutting down shelter beds, the street homeless population started to grow and grow.

Since the 2005 biennial homeless count, the unsheltered homeless population has increased by nearly 2,000 from 2,655 in 2005 to 4,353 in 2017.

To make matters worse, the 2008 recession led City Government to close shelters during the day to save money. Since 2004, City Government has also closed half of its daytime homeless drop-in centers, forcing people outside where they are more visible to residents and tourists.

Only in 2015 did shelter building return, but in the form of Navigation Centers. These facilities come with more supportive services and fewer rules than traditional shelters — couples can stay together, pets are allowed, belongings can be stored, the centers are open 24 hours a day, meal times are not strictly set — but they also kick people out after 30 or 60 days and cost twice as much to operate as traditional shelters.

City Government also has not built enough of these centers. With three new ones in the pipeline, San Francisco will still only have 686 Navigation Center beds and 1,203 traditional shelter beds for the 7,499 people experiencing homelessness. Even worse, three of the existing Navigation Centers are scheduled to be shut down over the coming two years to make way for new development, resulting in the loss of 288 beds. Despite an immense and immediate need, City Government’s recently released Five Year Plan to End Homelessness only calls for one new Navigation Center through 2022 with 65 beds and no new shelters². Basically, City Government does not have a plan to create the shelter beds that we so badly need to get thousands of people off the street and on the path to a better life.

As Supervisor, I will plan and deliver 3,000 new shelter beds and 300 new acute care beds for those struggling with mental health issues.

They will come with comprehensive services similar to Navigation Centers that give the homeless the best opportunity to start rebuilding their lives. They will be open all day, provide common spaces for folks to hang out in during the day, and storage lockers for folks to store their stuff when they’re out working.

But unlike Navigation Centers, they will not be temporary facilities that are already scheduled to be shut down the day they open. They will be designed for folks to live there until they find permanent housing and will not kick people out after only a few weeks. They will do away with the most permissive rules adopted in Navigation Centers that unnecessarily drive up costs and that are not in line with national best practices.

Unlike many responses to homelessness, building new shelter facilities is fiscally feasible. The average Navigation Center bed costs less than $30,000 to build³, which is 20 times less than the equivalent unit of supportive housing that now cost over $700,000 to develop and build⁴. Shelter beds are even cheaper, coming in at $25,000 per bed. The total buildout cost for 3,000 new shelter beds would be less than half of what City Government already spends on homelessness⁵ in a single year, and could be funded by cutting back on programs that have not proven to be cost-effective at getting folks off the street.

Shelters don’t work for everybody, like folks struggling with acute mental illness. That’s why we also need to build 300 new mental health treatment beds. But today there is a more than 1,000 person waiting list for the basic adult shelters, and homeless outreach workers document that 7 out of 10 folks they contact who are sleeping on the street would prefer to sleep in a shelter.

We can do better

Because of bad decisions made at City Hall, thousands and thousands of people sleep unsheltered on our streets every night. 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 and 300 new mental health treatment beds.

  2. Interim Mayor Mark Farrell recently put forward a budget proposal that would build a few more Navigation Centers in the coming year, but this proposal still has to go through a budget process at the Board of Supervisors and one budget is hardly the long term plan we need.
  6. If San Francisco added 3,000 shelter 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.

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

Nick Josefowitz

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I live with my wife and kids in San Francisco. I work to make our communities affordable, easy to get around, and free from carbon emissions.