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San Francisco Lawmakers Want Sober Housing to Be Part of Homelessness Plan

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San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey (top-center) speaks from a podium at City Hall on June 17. Together, he and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman announced their new legislation to prioritize drug-free recovery housing in front of advocates and the community. (Katherine Monahan/KQED)

A pair of San Francisco lawmakers on Monday outlined their plans to require the city to create more drug-free recovery housing in its push to house the unhoused population, building on a growing movement toward establishing sober housing for people trying to exit homelessness while struggling with addiction.

The legislation that San Francisco Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Rafael Mandelman plan to introduce Tuesday acknowledges that some permanent supportive housing projects are legally restricted to “drug-permissive,” harm-reduction approaches, which means they are required to accept applicants regardless of their sobriety and cannot evict residents solely for the use of illicit drugs.

Any unrestricted funding, however, would be required to go toward drug-free or “recovery-oriented” housing until at least 25% of units in the city’s broader initiative to provide permanent housing for the homeless population are drug-free.


Under California’s “Housing First” policy, there are no drug-free public housing options, a void that advocates argue is critical to fill.

“It’s not enough to get folks indoors and keep them alive until they die of overdose. The point is to get them indoors so we can support them in living long and full and productive lives,” Mandelman said at a news conference on Monday at City Hall announcing the legislation.

Joshua Brathwaite, a San Francisco-based recovery advocate, highlighted the urgency of the situation in a recent press release from a California legislator aiming to allow state housing funds to go toward sober housing.

“I’ve been sober for 16 months, but I can’t find any available drug-free housing that can give me the programming and support I need to continue being sober,” Brathwaite said. “I’m in danger of relapsing and falling back into a cycle I fought so hard to get out of.”

California’s Housing First policy, enacted in 2016, prioritizes rapid rehousing without prerequisites such as credit checks, criminal background reviews, income verification, or sobriety, with the goal of quickly moving people into housing before following up with addiction treatment, healthcare, mental health services and job training. Crucially, the policy prohibits state funding for sober housing.

As fentanyl use surged nationwide, critics have argued that the state’s policy is too restrictive, limiting housing options for those attempting to avoid drugs. Addiction specialists contend that living in environments permeated by drug use can derail recovery efforts, even for highly motivated individuals.

“San Francisco needs different kinds of supportive housing for the diverse range of people who are homeless, including recovery-oriented housing for people with addictions,” Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychology professor who served as senior drug policy advisor in the Obama administration, said Monday in a news release from Dorsey’s office. “Research shows that recovery housing helps residents cease substance use, find a job and stay out of jail.”

Although federal housing officials revised their Housing First guidelines to include provisions for drug-free recovery housing in 2022, California has yet to adopt similar measures, leaving a gap in support for those in recovery.

Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) is leading efforts to amend state law. His proposed bill, AB 2479, would allocate up to 25% of state housing funds for drug-free housing. The bill has passed the state Assembly and is now under consideration by the state Senate.

“Many people seeking recovery don’t want to live next to others who are still using drugs, and they shouldn’t be forced to. These drug-free recovery models allow for a community of people who are all on a journey to be fully sober to help keep each other accountable and make sure that they have the support needed to not fall back into drug use or homelessness,” Haney said in a press release.

Meanwhile, some conservative groups and Republican lawmakers are advocating for the repeal of California’s Housing First policy, arguing that it has not effectively reduced homelessness. Assemblymember Josh Hoover (D-Folsom) has introduced AB 2417, which seeks to dismantle Housing First policies. The bill has yet to be heard by a committee and is unlikely to advance this year.

KQED’s Katherine Monahan contributed to this report.

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