Coordination, Not Contradictions: A Response to the City’s Plan for ‘A Safer San Francisco’

All In Team March 23, 2022
On December 17, 2021, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin. The Emergency Declaration allowed the City to expedite the implementation of programs to quickly open a temporary linkage site where people with substance use issues can receive behavioral health services. Three months after its implementation, All In asked several local partners and experts for their perspective on the emergency declaration. First up is Mary Kate Bacalao, the Director of External Affairs and Policy at Compass Family Services.

Needless to say, many residents of San Francisco have struggled to accept the City’s status quo. The situation hurts your head and breaks your heart. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, children are sleeping in cars because their families lost their housing. Additionally, as one of the most innovative and progressive cities globally, public systems are stuck in the 1990s and funding for homelessness is flowing like molasses into essential shelter and housing programs. In one of the most politically progressive cities in the world, anger about the homelessness crisis often manifests as anger about homeless people—who are mostly people of color—rather than the public systems that are failing them every day

Nowhere are the contradictions sharper than in the Tenderloin, which was in a state of emergency for a long time before the City’s official state-of-emergency declaration back in December. Officials have defined the problem in terms of public health—an overdose epidemic—but so far they’ve called for solutions that focus disproportionately on public safety, emphasizing law enforcement as the primary strategy in the Tenderloin Emergency Plan.

Public health problems call for public health solutions. In a Medium post titled ‘A Safer San Francisco,’ in which Mayor Breed introduces her plans for public safety, she writes that San Francisco is ‘the safest city in the country’ when it comes to COVID, alluding to the shelter-in-place order that dramatically reduced severe COVID cases and deaths among San Franciscans who had shelter during the pandemic. 

Mayor Breed wants to make San Francisco ‘the safest city in the country—period.” But in her plan, the phrase ‘public health’ appears only once, while the words ‘public safety’ appear 15 times.

Jail or treatment” may sound like refreshing tough talk, but it’s shortsighted as a public health strategy. Nonprofits play the long game: When people heal, so do communities.” 

We need to be thinking more expansively about public safety if we want to help the Tenderloin recover from its complex and interconnected struggles. Police can play a role—responding to violent crime, for example—but not focusing on nonprofit services will undercut any serious attempt to create public safety over the long term. 

A study from Chicago showed that the addition of 10 community nonprofits per 100,000 residents led to a 9% decline in the murder rate, a 6% decline in the violent crime rate, and a 4% decline in the property crime rate, on average, over 20 years of data. 

The logic is not hard to follow: Safe communities are made up of people who are physically and emotionally healthy, who have stable housing, livable incomes, and hope for a better future. Nonprofits—especially when resourced properly—create safer communities by building relationships, meeting basic needs, and supporting people to make choices that honor the best in themselves. 

“Jail or treatment” may sound like refreshing tough talk, but it’s shortsighted as a public health strategy. Nonprofits play the long game: When people heal, so do communities. 

A Big Contradiction

As the Director of Policy at Compass Family Services, the contradiction that stands out most clearly to me is that the City has agreed to a massive investment plan while the crisis in the Tenderloin continues to unfold. Back in July and August, the Board of Supervisors approved, and the Mayor signed, a budget making unprecedented investments in housing and services mainly thanks to the new business tax.

Now, as we round the corner into the last quarter of the fiscal year, most of that funding remains unspent, most notably funds allocated for housing and behavioral health—the very services that would provide direct relief to the Tenderloin by sheltering sick and traumatized people and creating safety for families and seniors navigating the streets.

The Problem in the Pipeline

Public money can be extremely difficult to spend, even after it’s budgeted. A flow diagram for the City’s procurement process—if it existed—would look chaotic, with documents like “requests for proposal” requiring multiple sets of approvals across a myriad of city departments. 

The City’s contracting processes rely on outdated document management systems—some departments refuse to use systems at all—forcing homeless services nonprofits to resort to lines of credit and pay fees and interest to private financial institutions when City reimbursements are late (which, without systems, they often are). 

When funding finally gets to these nonprofits, it’s underutilized because there isn’t enough of it to retain our frontline staff, many of whom live on the edge of homelessness themselves. We can’t spend our personnel budgets on persistently vacant positions. 

Rather than seize the opportunity to modernize outdated systems, standardize procedures across departments that operate like special snowflakes, and speed up relief to the streets by spending more money at a faster pace (e.g., funding a wage floor for essential nonprofit staff), the City seems to be in a state of informal slowdown. 

When I ask officials about the delays with rolling out the City’s spending plan for homelessness, they cite process requirements as well as recent public corruption scandals (as if fraud associated with for-profit contracts has anything to do with nonprofit contracts paying shelter and housing programs to operate on smoke and mirrors).

Yes, But No—A Bad 1960s Throwback

Another major impediment to spending comes from the public. Staff at the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) have worked tirelessly to identify sites for housing acquisition. However, every time they do, entire neighborhoods mobilize strident and ugly opposition. 

I have joined probably ten community meetings over the last several months where mostly white community members spoke out of both sides of their mouths about the human right to housing, effectively saying: “Every person deserves housing, but they do not deserve it here, in this building, on this block.” The subtext here is, “Black lives matter, but housing Black residents doesn’t.” 

As a resident of District 8, I watched my fellow San Franciscans openly disrespect public officials with hostilities and profanities. I heard them make hateful allegations equating unhoused people with murderers and sex offenders. San Francisco’s contracting processes may be stuck in the 1990s, but some of our social beliefs are stuck in the 1960s. 

Getting Our House In Order

San Francisco needs to get our house in order. Public servants and service providers should not have to fight for a public health buy-in to progressive solutions. And we in the public and nonprofit sectors should be aware that progressive solutions will not work if we implement them poorly. 

We can throw up a linkage center (and good on the City for doing it quickly), but at the end of the day, we cannot link people to beds and services if we don’t have an adequate amount of either. No matter how game-changing the investment plan, we cannot expand social programs on a crumbling foundation of underfunded contracts that pay poverty wages to frontline staff doing soul-crushing work with the City’s most sick and traumatized residents. 

The “great resignation” is pervasive, but nowhere is it more acute than in understaffed and under-resourced shelter and housing programs. If the pace of investment does not pick up, programs will start closing faster than they’re opening—the ultimate contradiction given a massive investment plan—shredding the public safety net and public confidence along with it. 

We need coordination, not contradictions. We need a public health response to a public health emergency built around providing beds and evidence-based solutions like safe consumption services (which are proven to keep people alive until they’re ready to seek help). We need high-functioning public systems that safeguard funding as well and get dollars out of the door to where they’re needed most. We need public processes that facilitate progressive solutions, not processes for the sake of meeting standards established thirty years ago. Simply put, accountability is about solving problems, not complicating them. 

What we do in the Tenderloin matters. It matters for housed and unhoused people who live in the middle of the emergency and for the service providers who show up every day to keep hope alive. It matters for good governance and for the kind of city we want to live in—the types of communities we want to create. 

It matters for our values: we can stand up for what’s right around the world, but we cannot do it with integrity if we’re doing things wrong in our own backyard.


Mary Kate Bacalao is the Director of External Affairs and Policy at Compass Family Services, where she leads the organization’s budget advocacy and policy efforts to prevent to combat family homelessness. She also co-chairs San Francisco’s Homeless Emergency Services Providers Association (HESPA)—a coalition of 30 nonprofits with deep roots serving unhoused communities. Mary Kate holds a B.A. from Columbia College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. Her writing has appeared in Shelterforce, The Nation, CityLab, and local newspapers.

Compass Family Services helps homeless and at-risk families become permanently housed, emotionally and physically healthy, and economically self-sufficient. Compass operates ten programs—including shelter and housing, drop-in and mental health, child care and workforce development services, and more. These programs connect families with housing, child care, employment opportunities, and therapy designed to assist families transitioning out of homelessness.