The San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday listened to city homelessness officials explain why they could not eliminate unsheltered homelessness in the city even if they had $1.45 billion and three years to work with.

The occasion was a hearing to consider a report that the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) submitted on Dec. 30 in response to the board’s directive that HSH prepare a plan to shelter all of the city’s homeless within 36 months.

Instead of submitting a plan, the department provided its “A Place for All Report” which calculated a massive price tag for ending unsheltered homelessness, but added that difficulties in siting projects, obtaining approvals and scaling up made achieving the board’s direction not “feasible.”

Even before the hearing, the price tag and diffident approach in HSH’s report generated controversy. District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman wrote on Twitter, “It’s as if HSH is hoping to convince the City that ending unsheltered homelessness is impossible, so we shouldn’t bother trying.”

Before the hearing, Mandelman held a press conference on the steps of City Hall where a series of speakers excoriated HSH’s report.

“Conditions on the street,” Mandelman said, “have become an existential issue for the future of San Francisco’s economy and for many of our neighborhoods and the folks who live in them.”

He expressed his disappointment with HSH’s report.

“This was not a serious or remotely feasible plan to end unsheltered homelessness in San Francisco,” Mandelman said.

He suggested it was time to consider whether HSH was the right agency to lead the push to end unsheltered homelessness.

District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani joined in. The “report to me is a complete exercise in futility. I am so angry when we look at the street conditions and that is what we get back. … It is unbelievable.”

‘The city where no one wants to go’

The harshest words came from Barbara Perzigian, general manager of Hotel VIA, which is located near Oracle Park in the city’s South Beach neighborhood.

Perzigian said, “I just want to start out by saying that anybody that is in a leadership position in this city … needs to hear it very clearly. No one wants to come to San Francisco.”

With evident city pride giving way to disgust she said, “Everybody knows San Francisco and Paris used to trade places as the two top cities in the world where everybody wanted to go. Well, now San Francisco is on the bottom and it’s become the city where no one wants to go.”

Barbara Perzigian, general manager of San Francisco’s Hotel VIA, speaks at a news conference outside City Hall on Mar 21, 2023. “We’re not going to walk around in a city where we don’t feel safe,” she said of tourists deterred by the city’s homeless and crime problems. (Joe Dworetzky/Local News Matters)

She said, “The reason is always the same. We’re not going to walk around in a city where we don’t feel safe. We don’t want to come to San Francisco and walk through drugs and walk through bodies and walk through human feces and walk through filth.”

Perzigian said the issue of unsheltered homelessness had to be addressed urgently.

“We don’t have three years to wait because we’re all going to be out of business. We need to clean up the streets,” she said.

At the Board of Supervisors’ hearing, HSH executive director Shireen McSpadden began the testimony for the department.

“We don’t have three years to wait because we’re all going to be out of business. We need to clean up the streets.”

Barbara Perzigian, Hotel VIA general manager

She said that the report outlined an approach that was responsive to the board’s request, but it was not the approach that HSH intended to follow.

She said that HSH’s approach would be presented in a strategic plan that would be unveiled next month and would include “bold but achievable goals for reducing and preventing homelessness.”

However, in a last-minute surprise, perhaps as a result of the pushback against its price tag, McSpadden said the department “took another look” at its calculations and cut its cost projection.

Instant savings

Noelle Simmons, chief deputy director, then testified that the changes reduced the projected cost from $1.45 billion to $992 million, a cut of $458 million. Simmons did not explain why the cut happened three months after the final report was submitted.

Mandelman seemed to understand why: he said he was gratified that calling a hearing “drove down the price by $450 million.”

Several community groups submitted testimony that challenged HSH’s approach. A key question for many was whether the report struck the right balance between shelter beds and permanent housing.

The HSH report said it would be necessary to establish 3,810 units of permanent housing in addition to 2,250 shelter beds.

HSH explained that it was “increasing prevention, permanent housing, and shelter resources in a 4:2:1 ratio,” as recommended by All Home, a Bay Area nonprofit that says it works on a regional basis “to advance coordinated, innovative solutions and build a movement to challenge the status quo that perpetuates homelessness.”

All Home presented testimony to the board, but despite HSH’s invocation of its 4:2:1 ratio, All Home did not fully embrace HSH’s approach.

All Home suggested that because San Francisco has already spent so much money on permanent housing, over the next two years it should instead prioritize establishing 1,500 “non-congregate interim housing” units — non-dormitory style shelter beds — and “pause investment” in permanent housing through January 2026.

The Bay Area Council, a pro-business group, also disagreed with spending more on permanent housing. The council’s written testimony to the board emphasized the extraordinary amounts that San Francisco has spent on homelessness.

“San Francisco has spent $2.8 billion on homelessness since 2016, more than half the entire state budgets of Delaware, South Dakota, and Montana,” the council said.

Alternatives to building housing

The council went on to report that San Francisco residents already support more units of permanent housing than any other city or region in the United States except Washington, D.C.

In the council’s opinion, HSH’s report “doubles down on the failed status quo while failing to consider alternatives.”

The council urged the board to focus on “providing shelter rather than more housing and to operate shelter beds on a far lower cost than what HSH uses.”

Rescue SF, a non-partisan city-wide citizen coalition, submitted a detailed financial analysis of the report and suggested that a billion dollars could be cut from HSH’s price tag by leasing rather than acquiring or building additional housing and shelter capacity.

The supervisors expressed a range of views. Like Mandelman, several said they were disappointed that HSH continued to follow its historical approach and use its past costs for shelter beds rather than looking at new models that could provide similar services for less.

A number of supervisors appeared interested in the testimony of Amy King, CEO and founder of Pallet, a public benefit corporation based in Washington, who described her company as an industry leader in establishing tiny home villages across the country.

“We have set up over 115 villages throughout the United States, including up to 40 sites just in the state of California,” King said.

Tiny houses like these being constructed in a Pallet Shelter community in Chico in 2022 could provide housing solutions for San Francisco’s homeless population. (Image via Pallet Shelter/Facebook)

She showed the board pictures of tiny homes that she said were cheap to assemble and maintain and could be put into services far more quickly than the models used by HSH.

Some of the supervisors were supportive of HSH’s approach and thought that it was essential to include more permanent housing. Supervisor Dean Preston faulted HSH for being too cautious and urged the department to challenge the board to do more. He thought that a billion dollars to eliminate unsheltered homelessness was reasonable.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen struck a chord when she asked where the city was going to find a place for 2,000 more shelter beds. She said that she was supportive of increasing shelter capacity, but based on her experience it will be very difficult to find sites.

The hearing ended without a clearly delineated path forward, but in a statement thereafter Mandelman said, “I look forward to working with Mayor Breed and my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to fund and open thousands of new shelter placements in the coming years.”

Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist. He practiced law in Philadelphia for more than 35 years, representing private and governmental clients in commercial litigation and insolvency proceedings. Joe served as City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor Ed Rendell and from 2009 to 2013 was one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission with responsibility for managing the city’s 250 public schools. He moved to San Francisco in 2011 and began writing fiction and pursuing a lifelong interest in editorial cartooning. Joe earned a Master’s in Journalism from Stanford University in 2020. He covers Legal Affairs and writes long form Investigative stories. His occasional cartooning can be seen in Bay Area Sketchbook. Joe encourages readers to email him story ideas and leads at