Proposition J - Facilities for the Homeless

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2003 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition J looks like a policy statement, but it is an ordinance. Prop. J would require the City to provide separate homeless shelters for seniors, families with children, youth and disabled persons. It would not provide funding to fulfill this requirement.

In addition to this binding ordinance, the measure contains a non-binding policy statement that says the City should protect the same populations from “homelessness and poverty.” It does not say how.
Prop. J was put on the ballot by signatures gathered as part of a mayoral campaign.

Why it is on the ballot

Staying in a homeless shelter is not a nice experience. In addition to the lack of privacy, people are routinely exposed to physical violence, theft, and drug pushers. SPUR’s landmark 2002 report, Homelessness in a Progressive City ([PDF 440Kb, 51 pages] SPUR Report 408, August 2002) identifies shelter reform as a major policy objective which the City should pursue. Our shelters need to be cleaned up, and the City needs to develop more innovative approaches to managing shelters, including the idea of creating shelters for special populations.

On the other hand, every dollar the City spends on temporary shelters is a dollar that is not going into housing supported with services, such as drug treatment, counseling, and job training. Shelters are not a long-term solution.


Proponents state:

  • The measure identifies a real problem: shelter conditions are not humane, and the problems are worse for members of the populations identified in the measure.


Opponents state:

  • This is an unfunded mandate masquerading as a policy statement
  • This measure does not need to be on the ballot. While the goals are laudable, a better piece of legislation would almost certainly emerge through a legislative process
  • An attempt to implement this measure could expose the City to litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act for involuntarily segregating disabled people
  • The non-binding policy statement about protecting seniors, families, youth, and disabled people from poverty would be laughable, if were not so offensive. Given that so many dedicated people have worked over the past 200 years to achieve this goal, the idea of a mayoral candidate simply declaring it to be “policy” without a single proposal for implementation is not acceptable.

SPUR's analysis

Prop. J wades into a complicated policy debate with a seemingly simple goal: require the City to provide separate shelters for populations “which may differ greatly from the general homeless population.”

While this sounds like a valid policy goal, there are several problems:   

  • First, it will cost more money—around $5 million in one-time costs to create new shelters, and about $9 million in added annual operating costs to the shelter system. The City cannot simply move around the various populations because the numbers of this differing homeless population do not fit neatly into the size of the current shelters. In other words, the City would have to create new shelters in order to completely separate the populations.
  • Second, there is a real debate about whether segregated facilities are always the right answer, especially for disabled people. Many members of the disabled community believe that disabled people should be integrated, rather than segregated, where public services are provided. In fact, there is a risk that implementation of Prop. J would expose the City to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Alternately, in order to stay within the law, the City would probably have to offer a choice to disabled people as to whether they prefer a segregated facility or to be housed with the general population—again, increasing the costs of administering the shelter program.
  • Finally, it should be not   ed that the City is already providing 353 separate shelter beds for families and 40 beds for youth. The demand for both types of shelters certainly exceeds the supply of beds, but the City is already moving in that direction, though not for seniors or the disabled.

Although SPUR recognizes the need to improve shelter security, we recommend a "No" vote on Prop. J. It is a haphazard attempt to solve a complicated problem.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Proposition J.