San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) will get $690 million in the next fiscal year if the budget proposed by Mayor London Breed is adopted.

The number is up by 2.7 percent from the current year, and now approaches half of the entire city budget of Sacramento with its population of 518,000.

Few departments have as visible and challenging a role in city government as HSH, and it faces a particularly hot seat this budget season.

The department’s stated mission is “to make homelessness in San Francisco rare, brief, and one-time through the provision of coordinated, compassionate, and high-quality services.”

There are many moving parts in fulfilling that undertaking, but it is likely that the public is most acquainted with the department’s efforts by observing the day-to-day situation on the city’s streets and sidewalks.

As of the last official count, there were roughly 8,000 individuals in the city experiencing homelessness, of which 4,397 were living without shelter.

No particular place to go

The department has attracted ongoing criticism for its management of the city’s shelter bed inventory at a time of a shortage so severe that the city is under a federal court injunction against clearing tent encampments because there is no place for those who are dispossessed to go.

Among the flashpoints was a fiasco at the Bayview Vehicle Triage Center — a safe parking location for people living in RVs — where the city’s failure to deliver promised electric service has led to environmental litigation and per-resident annual spending of $175,000.

Another was the discovery that an allocation of 80 beds at the Embarcadero Navigation Center was not used for months because the city had not procured beds — actual beds, the kind with mattresses — for the rooms.

The department was also criticized for seeming gaps in the supervision of its outside contractors, its failure to submit a plan to eliminate unsheltered homelessness as directed by the Board of Supervisors, and for failing to put up a fight to save more than 100 shelter beds in trailers at the port.

A tent stands next to a parking meter on Larch Street in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 2023. The city recently estimated more than half of roughly 8,000 homeless individuals living in San Francisco do not have shelter (JoeDworetzky/Bay City News)

One of the supervisors, Rafael Mandelman, publicly suggested that HSH was not the right agency to lead an initiative to expand the city’s shelter bed inventory.

The department’s efforts to address the problem of homelessness are focused on three key areas.

First on preventing homelessness through programs to help those in insecure housing situations retain housing. Second on preserving and expanding the city’s shelter bed inventory. Third by providing more opportunities to obtain long-term housing.

In its Home by the Bay strategic plan released in April of this year, the department argued that all three areas had to be addressed simultaneously. Prevention was the most cost effective — often help with one or two rent payments could help someone from falling into the unhoused group.

Expanding shelter was necessary to address the issue of people living on the streets.

Spending on permanent housing was necessary not only because housing is the ultimate goal for someone who is experiencing homelessness but because without long-term housing, there is no exit from shelter.

A first step

The mayor’s May 31 budget proposal addresses all three areas in what it envisions as the first step in implementing Home By The Bay’s goal of achieving “a 50 percent reduction in unsheltered homelessness in the next five years.”

Among the components of the budget, on the prevention side, there are to be 750 new slots of emergency rental assistance. On the housing side, the budget contemplates 75 new units of permanent supportive housing, 350 slots of rapid re-housing for adults, and increased capital funding for existing permanent supportive housing sites.

With respect to shelter, the department contemplates spending both to retain shelter beds that would be lost without new investment, as well as adding almost 600 new beds over two years. When fully implemented, the budget contemplates that the city will operate a total of 3,656 shelter beds citywide.

Among the many specific initiatives in the budget is the announcement of a plan to “build and operate a non-congregate shelter site in the Bayview.”

The Bayview District is the currently the location of “Site F” at Pier 94 that HSH is closing, and the Bayview VTC that has only six months left on its lease (though the city is seeking to obtain an extension.) Depending on what happens with those locations, there could be a loss of shelter in the Bayview of more than 150 people.

A spokesperson for HSH said that the proposed new shelter site was unrelated to the closure of Site F. When asked for information on the location and number of beds of the proposed site, HSH replied “details are still being worked out.”

Another initiative would start a pilot program with modest funding ($150,000) to provide people assistance with repairs for their RVs or cars and/or to do vehicle buy-backs. This program is still in the design phase, but Anne Stuhldreher, director of the Financial Justice Program in the City Treasurer’s Office, said her group would collaborate with HSH on the initiative.

She said they would begin their work at the Bayview VTC and test out the idea that a small investment in vehicle repair or the payment of registration fees would help get a vehicle into good enough shape that a low-income person could travel and reunite with family elsewhere or go to an RV park.

Repurposing with a purpose

In order to fund some of the initiatives, the department proposes a one-time repurposing of $60 million that is currently committed to the “Our City, Our Home” program. The mayor has introduced an ordinance to authorize the reallocation.

Like all city departments, HSH’s budget includes proposed performance measures that it believes would be appropriate to use to evaluate its performance during the budgeted period. One measure is stated to be a “percentage of all available year-round adult homeless shelter beds used.”

The measure suggests that its target should be to average 95 percent of its beds filled. The report projects that in the current year it will only hit 89 percent.

The difference between those percentages means that improving HSH’s efficiency in using available beds would allow more than 200 people to be sheltered.

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