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Opinion | The Slums of California

Mandelman’s 2,000 beds, of course, do not cover the 5,000 unsheltered San Franciscans, but he believes that a large portion of this population does not want to live in a temporary shelter. And because Mandelman is interpreting Boise to say that you need to have available beds only for people who want them, he believes that 2,000 will easily cover the actual demand for shelter.

This will be expensive. Given that Mandelman estimates that 500 beds require about $20 million per year to keep up, 2,000 beds could run in the vicinity of $80 million a year. That said, voters have consistently named homelessness as one of the top concerns in the state, and billions of dollars have been budgeted toward solutions.

What Mandelman called the “sticker shock” isn’t really the most pressing issue when it comes to homelessness. What’s more concerning is what happens after the shelters are built. Because it’s unlikely that there will be enough permanent housing soon, the question becomes: How long will the government have the political will to provide assistance for these people? What does “temporary” really mean? Plus, services like drug counseling, mental health treatment and job support aren’t abstract concepts. They require a great deal of infrastructure, staff and expertise, all of which are currently hard to find.

“There isn’t capacity to handle the shelter beds we have now,” Shanti Singh, a San Francisco tenant and housing justice organizer, told me. “Setting aside the fact that the nonprofits that are contracted to run these services are strained fiscally, they also have a lot of turnover and staff vacancies.”

Mandelman does not dispute this. “That is an undeniable problem,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to meet this need. So if it means using public workers to do it, I guess we will have to bite the bullet and do that. If it means providing more resources to the nonprofits that are doing this work, to hire and retain people, then we need to do that.”

On March 14, the San Francisco Labor Council tweeted that the city and county had over 3,800 unfilled job positions. So civic workers are already overworked and understaffed with no real relief in sight. The problem is that there aren’t that many people, period, who will sign up to work with the homeless.

Mandelman also admits that there has been a wide range in the quality of third-party service providers who have worked with the homeless in San Francisco. Speaking of the Safe Sleep sites that popped up in the city during the pandemic, Mandelman said: “There were some that were very well managed, because they were adequately staffed and they were safe, and they were not a problem for the people in them or for the surrounding area. And there were others that were dystopian and not adequately staffed.” The difference was most likely the service provider. Some of the nonprofits that work with San Francisco’s homeless have already come under scrutiny and drawn the ire of activists and homelessness organizations for the allegedly opaque way they are awarded contracts and the qualifications of some of their workers.

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