SF Board Supervisor Matt Haney on the Challenges of Crime and Homelessness in Big Cities

Matt Haney, San Francisco Board Supervisor, joins Stanford Legal for a discussion about the challenges of homelessness and crime in cities, particularly since the start of the COVID pandemic.

This episode originally aired on SiriusXM on February 12, 2022.

SF Board Supervisor Matt Haney on the Challenges of Crime and Homelessness in Big Cities


Richard Thompson Ford: From Stanford University and SiriusXM, this is Stanford Legal. I’m Richard Thompson Ford.

Joe Bankman: And I’m Joe Bankman. Today, we’re talking with San Francisco supervisor and Stanford law school alum, Matt Haney, about the challenges of homelessness and crime and controversy surrounding the San Francisco school board.

Ford: Matt was one of my students in local government law many years ago. And back then I would use San Francisco as an example of a lot of issues facing local governments. But today San Francisco has become a poster child for the problems of big cities. For some people it’s a poster child for the failures of liberal and progressive government. It’s homelessness, it’s crime, all of these things and Matt’s talked to us about a lot of those issues today and how they’re sometimes a bit more complicated than what’s been portrayed in the media.

Bankman: That’s right. And what’s interesting Rich is that at the same time San Francisco has become, as you say, the poster child of what’s wrong with the city. Actually in many ways, it’s never been so successful. It’s tax revenues are up, it’s attracted a lot of the leading new companies in the country like Twitter, it’s resplendent in some parts and full of the tents of the homelessness in other parts.

Ford: It really epitomizes the divisions of wealth in our society for… And with all of the glittering sides and all of the really grim sides.

Bankman: And Matt’s a leading force in the city and someone we’ve had on this show before.

Ford: He’s always great to talk to.

Bankman: Matt, a lot of people are going to listen to this and they’re going to say, “Wait, that guy’s running for something. Why isn’t this program mentioning that?” And it is true. You’re running for another office. Stanford is not the party that to take a position on a candidate and we’re not going to have other candidates here. We plan to talk to you as a follow up from our earlier conversations on homelessness and COVID and education policy in San Francisco. So for our listeners here, that’s what this podcast is about.

Matt Haney: Sounds fair to me. I talk enough about the other stuff. So I’m happy to talk about these things as well.

Bankman: Great.

Ford: Great. Well, I’ll just start off with a big question that can go in a lot of different directions. But the image that you hear in some of the media is San Francisco is the example of everything that’s wrong with liberals. It’s got a huge homelessness problem. It’s got a giant crime problem. They’re spending billions of dollars a year and the problems aren’t getting fixed. So I’m curious as to how you would respond to any aspect of that but we’re interested in… Let’s start with homelessness. There’s a big homelessness for problem in San Francisco. What do you see as the biggest challenges and what’s the city doing?

Haney: Well? San Francisco is definitely a place that people have a lot to say about, especially lately. And some of that I think is intentional. It’s part of a larger political strategy around the country and some of it is very unfair. We have a lot of problems and challenges here that are similar to what most cities have and problems and challenges that have gotten worse during the pandemic. We’ve had to shut down most of our city for long periods of time. Many of our bigger sectors have been deeply impacted. Offices aren’t open, tourism and conventions aren’t happening. So some of those problems that we have including homelessness get a bit more visible and in some cases more serious. And that’s what’s happened in San Francisco. We’ve had a homelessness challenge for a long time. And actually, this is a problem that has gotten worse in other parts of California more so than in San Francisco. And anyone who lives in LA or Sacramento or Oakland would probably tell you that their challenges with homelessness is as bad as anywhere else, in including in San Francisco.

So we’ve got challenges. I think for San Francisco, we are doing a lot of things and helping a lot of people and it’s not enough because more and more people become homeless and people come to San Francisco or they’re displaced locally because of the cost of housing here. So I think that we did learn some things over the… Throughout the pandemic. We did learn that if you give people a place to go indoors, where they have their own room and some services, food, that the overwhelming majority of people will accept that. And so we were able to have some success with shelter in place hotels. We had these hotels that weren’t being used for tourism that we were able to get thousands of people off the streets. And when we offered them to people on the streets, they went. And so I think there’s a lot of hope as well but there’s… The problem that we’ve had with homelessness has gotten worse because of some of the challenges associated with the pandemic.

Bankman: Matt, I know last time we talked, you did something that I thought was amazing when you sponsored legislation or plans to open up unused hotels for the homeless. You served as a night manager there for a while. Are you still doing it? Was that a short term thing? Tell us a retrospective of that experience.

Haney: Well, I did it for… It was a relatively short term thing. I did it for a few weeks when they had shortages and we were trying to get a lot more hotels open and they told me that, “Well, we don’t have enough staff to operate these hotels. We have enough hotels.” They were… Most of our hotel rooms in the city were empty and yet we still had thousands of people on the streets and the federal government was paying for it. So I said, “Well, we got the resources, we got the hotels, let’s get people in.” And they said, “Well, we don’t have enough people to work at the hotels.” And I said, “Well, how can I help?” And they said, “Well, you could go work at one.” And I said, “Okay. So sign me up.”

So ultimately we were able to get people to go in and staff them adequately. I think my concern about what happened during that time is that we did, at an unprecedented level, grow our placements available with these hotels. We brought in thousands of people. But we actually could have done a lot more. We had the federal government for the first time basically being willing to reimburse us at a hundred percent for anyone that we wanted to bring inside. We had hundreds of empty hotels that we could have used, thousands across California. And yet even with that, most cities and counties didn’t do much at all. Didn’t even take up the opportunity. And San Francisco did some but we didn’t go nearly as far as we could have. And I think that’s… We learn the lesson that there are resources available that you can use.

But also that there’s something about the lack of willingness to step up to a challenge that a bureaucracy self-limits. They say, “This is only how much we can handle.” Even if we give you everything you need to solve homelessness, they don’t want to take it on and they place limits on themselves. And that is also… There’s some hope in that there’s also and that we should be a bit concerned about because if we weren’t going to solve homelessness when literally the federal government was going to pay for it and we had empty rooms everywhere, I don’t know how we ever are. And that’s something that I think that we need to also reflect on.

Bankman: Matt, to pick up on Rich’s comment about is this… Is San Francisco doing something wrong? Rich gave you the… A line that you would hear say from the conservative media outside of San Francisco. Another line that goes with it is how much money San Francisco is spending. And I don’t know if you’ve seen those figures but the Hoover institution has a report. It says San Francisco spent 850 million on the homelessness and that’s a hundred thousand a person. And is that true? How do you… That seems like a lot. Help us understand what the other side of that story is.

Haney: Well, I know they study and teach a lot of things over at the Hoover Institute but it doesn’t sound like they teach math. That is not a good way to determine how much money we spend. What they probably did there is that they just took the number of people who are currently on the streets and the overall spend and just did a basic divide. The reality is that most of the money that we spend on homelessness is spent on people who are formerly homeless. San Francisco has over 10,000 people who were housed in supportive housing. And most of our homelessness budget is to pay for them. So we have to understand that when we’re talking about homelessness, it’s not only that we have to get people who are often very sick, often disabled, often very old. Sometimes have addictions, a lot of times have trauma and getting them indoors but then we’ve got to keep them indoors and that costs a lot of money.

Some of these folks are not able to take care of themselves unfortunately and we have to continue to take care of them. So there’s reasons why San Francisco spends more money than a lot of places. We’re taking care of a lot of people who’ve been kicked out of other places. Who somebody gave a bus ticket to and then they’re here. And so we’re helping them when they’re not helping them. Things are also more expensive here. We’re a city in a county. Housing is more expensive. You can’t go and get someone a room for $500 a month here. It’s going to be exponentially higher than that. So those things add up. Can San Francisco do a better job, use our money better, be more accountable? Yeah, definitely, just like everywhere else. But the idea that we’re just burning money is not true. And the money that we spend is actually largely to house people and you wouldn’t necessarily see that on the streets because when we help 20 people indoors, tragically we often see another 20 show up.

Ford: Well, that makes me… That brings to question, how much of homelessness is a problem that can really be addressed strictly locally? Because you mentioned that every city in the state has got a homelessness problem but you also mentioned that people get a bus ticket to San Francisco. So is there a way in which San Francisco is really taking care of a disproportionate share of the whole state’s homelessness population or maybe even other states?

Haney: I think San Francisco absolutely is taking care of a disproportionate share. And some other cities are also doing that. People come to cities when they become homeless, where they come to cities for services. A lot of the people who are homeless may have been homeless for a long time in San Francisco but came here, either they were… Had insecure access to housing or insufficient access to permanent housing. The focus that the city had as and that the world has really in looking at the Tenderloin I think is probably the biggest reflection of that misguided notion that by targeting your services and concern at a single neighborhood, that somehow you can address the larger issue. Really, what’s happening in the Tenderloin and parts of San Francisco is that it’s concentrated and visible there but it wasn’t caused in that neighborhood.

And if you don’t address the real causes of it and you don’t address it where it’s happening, everywhere that it’s happening, you’re always going to have certain places where it’s more concentrated and visible. And it’s going to be harder to solve the issue if you just focus on one neighborhood. So it’s a challenge that I face because I represent the neighborhoods where it’s a greater concentration. So I do want people to get help here and I want the neighborhoods to be safer and healthier. But I also recognize that this is really a reflection of much bigger problems that really can’t be solved in a hyper-local way.

Bankman: You know, Matt you’ve mentioned the safety and there’s so many issues people are thinking about. But safety in the Tenderloin is another issue that’s associated with it. And how about crime in the Tenderloin in San Francisco? Locally it’s always an issue. How do you see it? Has it been increasing? Is that a significant problem? Is it greater in San Francisco than other cities?

Haney: I think there’s no doubt that people are experiencing higher levels of crime, particularly property crime. That comes in part with the pandemic and certain types of interventions, whether law enforcement or programming, really being more limited and dislocated. Greater inequality. A lot of the systems themselves are not working in ways that they did before the pandemic. If you have been arrested a bunch of times, you might have found yourself in a collaborative court in some re-entry program. None of those things are happening or they’re happening at very limited levels because people really aren’t able to be around each other in the same degree. And so we’re experiencing that in San Francisco. People also experience crime differently when there’s not a lot of other stuff going on. If you don’t have a bunch of people who are in the offices and coming outside and events and restaurants and bars and everything, you really do experience fear and bad or dangerous behavior in a more heightened way.

So all of that is happening in San Francisco. I don’t think that it’s more than it is in other places. In fact, some of the more violent crime and homicides have just skyrocketed over the last few years in other cities but not in San Francisco. San Francisco still is hovering around 20 year lows for homicides over the last few years, which is different than a lot of other cities. So I think we do have some issues and people experience them in very serious ways and they should be taken seriously. But the idea that San Francisco is more dangerous than other cities is actually not born out by the evidence. But people are experiencing it differently here and certainly there’s an increase in property crime and that’s definitely happening.

Ford: So, I guess that raises another question, which is in recent news we heard that Mayor London Breed had endorsed, for lack of a better word, a crackdown in the Tenderloin in order to try to deal with some of the manifestations of crime. I wonder what you thought about that and does that reflect the things you’ve just been talking about that, where the problem is more visible than the Tenderloin or does it reflect the fact that the Tenderloin really is in a dire position and needs an extraordinary law enforcement push?

Haney: Well, the Tenderloin definitely gets a lot of focus and attention from people from people. I think that it’s visible, it’s near downtown, it reminds people of our failures and our shortcomings in a variety of ways. And so that leads to really a hyper focus on the Tenderloin. I also think that the people of the Tenderloin do want and deserve safety and they themselves, I think, believe that a lot of particularly the drug dealing that’s so brazen here and some of the dangerous behavior that comes with that needs a much more proactive response. The… Everybody knows there’s behavior here that’s tolerated or allowed or even consolidated that would never be tolerated in any other part of the city. And I think that people of the Tenderloin experience that most acutely. So all of that leads itself to say, yes, there’s probably a need to have a greater focus on safety here but most of the people in the Tenderloin would tell you and I’d tell you… I live in the Tenderloin.

Most days I walk outside a car a police car drives by within seconds. There are a lot of police in the Tenderloin. So there’s also a question of what exactly it is that they’re doing and need to be doing that can actually change the situation. Some of the experience that people have in the Tenderloin right now of things getting quote unquote worse is that we’ve been doing a lot more. And we have community safety ambassadors on every block, even more police officers, all of that and the result of that is that they’re moving people who were selling drugs from one block to another block. And so the people on the other block are saying, “This is worse than it’s ever been.” And they’re right. For them it is. And so we haven’t really gotten to the point where we are doing a whole lot more than simply moving around some of the problems.

And that’s how the Tenderloin got to be to begin with. Is that people move problems from other neighborhoods to here. And the Tenderloin is the last stop. So there’s no… They’re just moving people around within the Tenderloin now. So in terms of a crackdown or ability to actually ensure safety in the neighborhood, you’re going to have to both have some level of policing that actually is doing something different and being effective and then really getting at those deeper issues and those deeper solutions because there’s no pushing people from here. This is where rubber hits the road and if we’re going to solve problems, they need to be solved here. And that’s a lot harder than what most other… Most other cities and neighborhoods, they’ll have some big, “We’re going to do a crackdown. We’re going to take this seriously.” And often what happens is they just move people to another place under somebody’s freeway where it’s not seen.

Bankman: More with Matt Haney next on Stanford Legal here on SiriusXM Business Radio channel 132.

Ford: Welcome back to Stanford Legal on SiriusXM. We are here with San Francisco supervisor Matt Haney and we’ve been talking about homelessness and crime in the Tenderloin and the way San Francisco is facing some distinctive challenges. Matt, I’m interested in… One of the things you said a little while ago was that some of the problems are more visible in the Tenderloin and in certain parts of San Francisco than they are in most other places. And an example that comes to mind is drug use where there is some relatively open drug use that we wouldn’t see in other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Now, that’s happening for some good reasons but it also maybe raises some equity concerns for the people who live in the Tenderloin and have to put up with it. Any thoughts about that?

Haney: Yeah. I think that no one should have to walk through people who are using drugs openly. Shooting up, it’s a regular thing in this neighborhood and I think it is very disturbing. Of course the bigger concern is that people are shooting up or smoking drugs like fentanyl and dying. That I think has gotten worse and what has really changed in our city and around the country is fentanyl. And we as a city have had drug use for a long amount of time but we’ve seen over the last three years a tripling of the number of people who are dying of drug overdoses. And this reflects something that’s happening across the country, where there was a 30% increase in people dying of overdoses in a single year and going from over 70,000, over a hundred thousand in 2020.

So we’ve also got to figure out how to get the drug use off the streets, inside and get people help. And then also our we’ve got a national crisis of fentanyl use that as we come out of COVID I think is clearly the biggest epidemic that we’re facing and is killing now more people than pretty much anything. And we haven’t figured it out. For heroin and drugs like that, there was clean needle programs and different types of treatment and yes, it was continuing to be really an awful thing that we were grappling with. But people are dying at a pace and a level of fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin. And I think that that’s where we need everybody across the country working together, coming with the best ideas and solutions and investments because it’s really at a scale of devastation that is unlike any other drug we’ve seen.

Bankman: You know and the Netherlands I believe, the state supplies safe drugs. That’s… Is that an approach here? We’re not going to supply safe fentanyl but I suppose we could find what economists would say a fentanyl substitute, which would probably be the heroin that was replaced by fentanyl.

Haney: Yeah. And essentially that’s what methadone or buprenorphine, Suboxone, it helps you manage those cravings. And that’s the only real effective treatment for this. And it’s actually really hard to get. They don’t prescribe it nearly at the levels that they should. There’s stigma around it. So that’s I think the direction that we should go where we should really just immediately enroll people in these types of treatments and reduce all barriers to it. I think that’s really the only way to do it and it’s essentially giving them some of the same effects physiologically but something that they can manage and then you do you reduce it over time.

Bankman: We have so little time left but I want to move to one more issue and there’s so many we could cover. But that’s a school board. You’ve been there and done that until your current position. And there’s a recall right now for members that have among other things favored renaming schools, including schools named after people like Abraham Lincoln and… What’s your position on that?

Haney: Well it was a time when people were paying a lot more attention to the schools. It’s one of these things where somebody can serve on a local school board and nobody notices who you are until they really need you and the decision that you’re making directly impact their lives. And when you’re opening schools or closing schools or forcing this or that, people are going to start to know your name and watch you a bit closer. And people started knowing the names of our current school board and watching them a bit closer and needless to say that didn’t help their cause. Because the closer that they watched, the more they didn’t like what they saw. And a lot of that had to do with the sense that they weren’t laser focused on the things that were really impacting students and families most directly, which was being in virtual learning and not being in school and all of the things that came with that.

And so they seemed to be focusing on everything but that. And so it did… It does… It was… I do think this school board will be recalled. I think that the bigger question is how we have elected officials who are actually focused on the things that their constituents care about. And when they’re especially a low profile like many school boards and they don’t do that, usually they get away with it. But they didn’t get away with it this time because people were watching. So that’s really what happened with this school board and they… But the other question that we have in San Francisco and around the country is… There’s recall fever here and even as it’s causing some accountability for people who probably deserve it, is this how we want to govern? Where every elected official as soon as they get there, our governor or our DA and everyone else, as soon as they get there they start experiencing folks coming after them and trying to re-litigate every election.

Because I think elections should be between people, not between you and get out of here. Because most recalls you don’t select your replacement on the recall ballot. So you might not like somebody but if we gave you an alternative, you might like that alternative less and I think that’s part of how democracy works. You have a choice and recalls really don’t give you that choice. So generally we shouldn’t be doing recalls but I think the school board pretty much deserved it.

Ford: So in a sense it’s the people didn’t pay attention to the initial election when they should have.

Haney: Right.

Ford: We got the school board that we got and then they noticed during COVID and now the alternative is a recall, which certainly can’t be the best way to go about dealing with the problem. But at this point it might be the only way. But the school board, there are a series of controversial things. There’s the renaming of the schools, there’s a Lowell High School, which a lot of people are upset about. And then there are a few other things that… They’re all in the mix now and it’s a little… At least from the outside, it’s a little hard to tell exactly who’s upset about what or why this recall has gathered steam. Do you have a sense of what the biggest issue is?

Haney: I think there was a lot of things that built on each other. And the lack of focus on what was a really challenging time for schools, that is still really challenging. We’ve had open, close, open, close. And there’s also… This school board, a couple of the members really had a common strain which felt a real deep disdain for the people that they represent, especially parents. And that was a common theme with them that I think ultimately caught up to them. And look, there’s an important conversation to have about making sure our schools are reflective of our diversity and updating them in various ways. But to say that we should do it while those schools themselves aren’t even open, where people can’t have input where you can’t bring people together, there’s something about this really deep failure of process mixed in with ego that I think was their downfall.

But they’re not the only ones in government probably who operate that way but this pandemic, as with a lot of things, had that different set of focus and a little bit of sunlight on things that people hadn’t been paying attention to and this was certainly one of them.

Bankman: Well, we’ve been talking to Matt Haney from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and one of our grads who has put a little bit of sunlight on some of the issues in San Francisco. Matt, it’s always great having you here.

Haney: Thank you so much.