San Francisco is paying $5,000 per month for each homeless tent

Homelessness is really expensive for the people who are paying for it. Last year, San Francisco set up six “safe sleeping villages” during the pandemic, including one right outside City Hall. Basically these sites are sanctioned tent camps where the homeless live on city property with bathrooms and free meals. It turns out the city is paying $5,000 per month for each tent:

San Francisco is paying $16.1 million to feed and house people in tent villages as the city struggles with a swelling homeless population. But the cost worries some lawmakers…

The 262 tents currently house more than 300 people, with some vacancies. The villages also provide access to bathrooms, meals and 24-hour security, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

That $16 million per year works out to $61,000 per tent, or $5,000 per month. San Francisco is also housing the homeless, temporarily, in hotel rooms. The hotel rooms cost a bit more than the accommodations in the safe sleeping villages but the city can get federal reimbursement for the hotels. There is no reimbursement available for the tents, which means it’s a drain on the city budget.

“It’s eye-popping, and we need to understand why that is,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said. “We have to find a way to have exits from the streets. But we need them to be more cost-effective.”…

“I understand the motivation to create (safe) sleeping space during this COVID-19 crisis,” Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said. “But we really need to dive deep to see if this a sustainable model … without any federal reimbursement.”

San Francisco was desperate to find some way to house people when it became clear that homeless shelters could potentially become prime places for the spread of the coronavirus. So they spent a lot of money quickly setting up these sites (there was no bidding process to find the best deal because there wasn’t time). So maybe it’s not surprising that it looks like the city got ripped off a bit.

At present the city spends $300 million per year on programs for the homeless. But the number of people on the streets keeps growing. They say you get more of whatever you subsidize and that may be true for homelessness too.

There probably are realistic solutions for the temporary homeless who are on the streets or sleeping in cars because of lost jobs and lost housing. But the long term homeless, the people living perpetually on in tents are another matter. They can’t care for themselves, either because of drugs, alcohol, mental problems or some combination of the three. What do you do for someone whose goal in life is to use meth every day? And what if it turns out many of those people dont’ do it just because they’re irresponsible but because they have some genuine trauma in their past that they are trying to medicate or escape. It’s not as simple as getting them clean so they can think rationally. For some, their lives were destroyed before they got into drugs or drinking.

No place in the United States has solved this problem, i.e. the inability of a free society that values self-determination to deal with the downward spiral of self-destructive behavior some people get trapped in. San Francisco is just one of the places where this failure has become most evident.