Is San Francisco homelessness bad?

No, and yes. Homeless people aren’t second-class citizens, they’re normal people who can’t pay rent. All US cities have ~1% homelessness, including SF. So SF isn’t notably worse than elsewhere. But the primary cause is always lack of affordable housing, and SF has notoriously bad housing policy. Worse, SF has less shelter. NY shelters 95% overnight vs SF shelters only 16%.

The research

Why you should trust us
Best answer: SF has a standard homeless rate, but worse housing policy & less shelter
Primary cause: housing affordability & why SF’s housing is so bad
Best long-term solution: make housing a right
Insufficient temporary solutions: lack of shelter & services
Why SF shelters less homeless vs NY
How people get out of homelessness today
Progress report: SF homelessness is improving, but not fast enough
Best help you can give on the street
Debunking myths

Why you should trust us

We spoke at length with Derek Fidler, Co-Founder of ShelterTech, and aggregated reporting from Kim-Mai Cutler, one of the leading voices in urban policy, Coalition for the Homeless (New York), the US’ oldest homeless rights advocacy organization, the Coalition on Homelessness (San Francisco), and 10+ housing- and homeless-focused government datasets.

We also read 20+ research papers and peer-reviewed studies on homelessness, including housing policy, legislation, mental illness, and drug use.

Best answer: SF has a standard homeless rate, but worse housing policy & less shelter

SF has a homeless problem, but not the way you think.

Most people think SF’s homeless “problem” is that SF has too many homeless people on its streets. People think SF has either more homeless citizens in general, or at least that its homeless citizens are somehow “worse” than those in other cities.

That is false. San Francisco does not have more homeless residents than other cities, proportionally. Most major US cities have ~1% homeless rate, and San Francisco is the same. 1 (The national homelessness overall rate is lower, at 0.2%.) 2

But. San Francisco does have a real homeless problem in a different way…

Homelessness in San Francisco is really two problems:

  1. Primary cause: housing affordability. Lack of affordable housing is the primary cause that leads to homelessness. Housing is too expensive, and there isn’t enough. 3
  2. Bad temporary solutions: there aren’t enough shelters & navigation centers. 4

Primary cause: housing affordability & why SF’s housing is so bad

The primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing. 5

So why can’t people afford housing? They can’t afford rent, or can’t get a job to afford rent (which requires a permanent address, thus creating a Catch-22): 6

  1. Can’t afford rent (48%)
  2. No job/income (28%)
  3. Housing availability (17%)
  4. Housing process is too difficult (13%)
  5. No money for moving costs (13%)

While affordable housing is the overall issue, it’s also important to know the most common events that directly cause homelessness. The top 5 events are: 7

  1. Job loss (25%)
  2. Alcohol/drug use (18%)
  3. Eviction (13%)
  4. Argument/asked to leave by friend/family (12%),
  5. Divorce/separation (11%)

Best long-term solution: make housing a right

The best solution for poverty/homelessness is to make housing a right, and put a price cap on CPI items, healthcare, transit, and housing costs. Building more housing has little effect to decrease rent or living costs.

Homeless people are NOT second-class citizens. They are normal people who can’t pay their rent. 1/4 people experiencing homelessness are women & children who often face domestic violence or difficult relationships. (related: what % of people lifted out of homelessness become homeless again?)

San Francisco spends about $240 million annually on homelessness so it goes to a lot of places.

It’s complicated. Most of it goes to housing the formerly homeless.

The actual homelessness budget is $160M, SF just spends from other budgets too.

this is probably the best 1 pager of what that money goes to

Insufficient temporary solutions: lack of shelter & services

SF shelters less of its homeless vs other major US cities. It’s especially bad vs. New York.

NY shelters 95% of its homeless citizens. SF shelters only 16%.

So should SF increase its shelter rate? Absolutely!

But more importantly, SF should also be lowering its overall homeless rate.

Why SF shelters less homeless vs NY

Let’s compare 3 major US cities: SF, LA, and NY.

They all have similar homeless rates of about 1%. But SF and LA shelter way less of their homeless than NY does.8

  • Overall homeless rates — SF is comparable
    • SF homeless: 0.8% (7,500 / 900,000 residents) 9
    • NY homeless: 0.73% (62,000 / 8,500,000) 10
    • LA homeless: 1.2% (47,000 / 4,000,000) 11
  • Shelter rates — SF is way worse
    • NY shelters 95% of its homeless at night
    • LA shelters 25%
    • SF shelters 16% 12 — this is way worse than NY and LA

(Aside: Chicago’s homeless rate is 3% (82,212 / 2,725,000 residents). This is clearly way higher than SF, NY, and LA. So we’re keeping it out of the main comparisons for tidiness, but felt it was still important to mention as a major US metropolitan area.) 13

So why does NY shelter so many more homeless than SF and LA?

NY has a legal “right to shelter” mandate, because of the Callahan v. Carey consent decree in 1981. NY is constitutionally mandated by consent decree to provide shelter to all those who need it. California has no equivalent mandate.

It’s a court mandate, not a legislative/voter mandate. (Voters would likely never approve such a thing.) 14

The court system enforced the language in NY State Constitution. Their constitution literally says, “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine.” 15

More people die of cold on the streets of LA than NY. 16

Does SF have the capacity to shelter more?
In other words, are we just not filling available beds?

No. SF shelters are generally 94-97% full at all times. 17

Do any other cities besides NY have a “right to shelter” legal mandate?

No. Only New York has a mandate. 18

And SF’s housing crisis gets worse every year we continue to not build more housing at pace with population growth.

SF homelessness is getting better over time, but it can get better faster. Shelters are thankfully expanding, so homelessness has plateaued over the past 5 years even while rent continues to rise. But SF still shelters only 16% of its homeless.

How people get out of homelessness today

Most homeless who do transition into affordable homes succeed because either the existing tenant died or moved away. [citation needed]

From a conversation between Derek Fidler at ShelterTech and Peter:

Derek: SF is also surrounded by cities with low density housing and equally high prices so low income people have nowhere else to go. Contrast that to NYC where low income communities have been pushed out of the city for decades into surrounding areas like Long Island, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut. Housing density in California is extremely low, too. SF has 7,500 units/mi while Manhattan has 35,000/mi.

Although density alone doesn’t always mean that rent will be lower if there are more units available. Speculation, availability of below market rate housing, and wages have a major effect on homelessness, too.

Peter: Homeless people are normal people who can’t pay their rent. Rent is ludicrously high in SF and LA. SF would look even worse except that our shelters are thankfully expanding, so the rate of street homelessness has plateaued over the past 5 years while rent continues to rise.

Progress report: SF homelessness is improving, but not fast enough

Is SF homelessness getting better?

Yes. It’s getting better over time. But it can get better faster.

Homelessness has gotten better in the long term. It has decreased since the 1990s.

But homelessness has gotten worse since its low point in 2005. It hasn’t increased but has plateaued over the past 5 years. Average rent continues to rise, and this is again the primary cause.

Even worse, SF still shelters only 16% of its homeless.

Shelters are thankfully expanding. 300 more beds will be added to Navigation Centers in 2019 (on top of the 350 existing NC beds). But we need thousands more beds (7,000 homeless)


Best help you can give on the street

“Should I give money? Should I buy food? Should I ignore?”

Basically: offer help if it seems useful. Never call the police on non-threats.

For a pocket guide, read 10 Things to Do When You See Homeless People.

“What happens if I don’t help someone who asks for help?”

They are at increased risk of Isolation, loneliness, depression, and self-confidence issues that the homeless feel as an invisible underclass with little community. 

There are a lot of anecdotal stories in Street Sheet about this ^

[needs citation]

“Do they have services they can access that help them?”

Yes. Direct homeless people you meet to (mobile-friendly) to find services available for homeless or at-risk people.

If you want to go deeper, check out resources from ShelterTech and the Mayor’s Office of Community Development.

Debunking myths

Myth #1: Do other cities really just bus their homeless to SF?

SF is not the victim of other cities’ homeless bussing programs. That’s an urban legend.

At least not in the way you think. And certainly not to the extreme of claims like “SF is stuck taking care of everyone else’s homeless”.

Yes, some cities bus some of their homeless citizens to SF. But San Francisco does this too.

In fact, SF busses out 100x more homeless than get bussed into SF. In the last 10 years, 150 homeless people were bussed into SF vs. 10,000 were bussed out. 20

In other words, bussing actually has the opposite effect of this myth. SF’s homeless pop in 2019 is ~7,000. It would be 17,000 without bussing programs. 21

And more importantly, most homeless people previously lived in the city in which they became homeless. 71% of homeless lived in SF when they became homeless. Of those, 49% had lived in SF for 10+ years.

Myth #2: Homeless people just use money for booze


Myth #3: All homeless people are drug addicts or mentally ill

Individuals suffering from mental illness and addiction disorders are the most visible portion of the population. However, only 35% of the homeless people in San Francisco have a mental illness. And only 37% have a substance abuse problem.

Many individuals with mental illnesses self-medicate with drugs and alcohol while experiencing the trauma of being without a home; this leads to addiction disorders. 22

In other words, drug abuse may not be the cause of homelessness, but it can absolutely makes drug abuse worse.

Derek’s answer: No, or at least not major causes.

One of the main reasons we have mass homelessness is the federal government gutted housing budgets for poor people and mentally ill people. “San Francisco once had a robust mental health system, but realignment, recession era cuts and huge losses to board and care facilities have left our mental health system nowhere near the capacity that is needed to serve the population.” 23

Myth #4: Just move people outside San Francisco

“Why can’t homeless people just move out of SF, into affordable areas?”

First of all, they shouldn’t have to. >80% of homeless in SF were already SF residents. SF is their home. No one should have to leave their home.

But in general, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. The area surrounding SF is just as bad; it has low housing density and high housing prices. Unlike NYC which itself has high housing density (35,000 units/sq mi vs SF with 7,500), and is surrounded by areas with lower housing prices (Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut).


  1. Great article on Prop 13:
  3. data from Eric Fischer, former Google employee —]

Header photo credit: Franco Folini San Francisco Homeless Music via photopin (license)

Sources   [ + ]

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