Six San Francisco mayoral hopefuls faced off with several dozen homeless families and other community members at the State building’s auditorium on September 23rd. Seven candidates were invited, but poll leader Gavin Newsom had scheduling issues, perhaps correctly reasoning his homeless reforms play better with citizens who can pony up campaign donations for face time than with some decidedly cranky homeless moms.
COH’s Family Rights and Dignity project organized the candidate forum, with City Treasurer Susan Leal, Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez, self-styled housing advocate Jim Reid, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, and former SFPD Chief Tony Ribera in attendance.
Newsom’s calendar conflict was probably fortunate: a last-ditch effort to resurrect his doomed Care Not Cash initiative from the Supervisor’s mortuary table had failed by one vote only hours earlier, largely due an epic endurance of effort from some of the same voters who were sitting in the auditorium that night.
Regardless of Gavin Newsom’s emerging reputation for ducking debates and crying victim, and despite the fact that his election staffers were furnished three potential dates to better accommodate his campaign calendar, it would be hard to imagine that he would sit in front of an audience to hear a detailed reading of a Homeless Family Platform developed by FRD with poor families living in shelters, SROs, and treatment programs (see page 9). After the Coalition’s Jennifer Friedenbach finished the twentyminute presentation, he’d then have had five minutes for stilted intonations of the same tired, scripted jargon he’s been charging his wealthy peers $1500 a head to hear over hotel-catered breakfasts.
And if No-show Newsom recited any of his “homeless reform” doublespeak to this crowd at eight in the morning, they might have thrown their breakfasts right back at him.
Fortunately, the food stayed outside the auditorium, but it was apparent by the harried look in many homeless parent’s eyes that they came to hear some real answers, and they didn’t have lots of patience left.
If any consensus could be drawn from the statements the candidates made, it was confirmation that public debate about homelessness in San Francisco has indeed become polarized…
and that the discussion was incomplete in Gavin Newsom’s absence because his corporate-sponsored agenda represents the entire opposite pole. The four candidates who were current or former supervisors had all worked with COH on various homeless issues in the past, and three of these played significant roles as allies in our continuing struggle to render Newsom’s dangerous Care Not Cash initiative inert.
Matt Gonzalez charged that Newsom and Care Not Cash had “hijacked the discussion” on homeless issues. Denouncing Newsom’s latest attack on poor people, the anti panhandling initiative Prop M, Gonzalez countered with Prop L the pragmatic proposal he sponsored on November 4th’s ballot seeking to raise San Francisco’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. Gonzalez pointed out Prop L’s immediate benefit to many of the 40% of homeless families who have at least one parent employed but can’t afford housing.
Matt also spoke out strongly against the Hotel Council’s recent controversial anti-panhandler billboard campaign in support of Newsom’s anti-panhandling initiative Prop M: “Saying giving money to poor folks will help spread STDs is a lie.” Echoing key tenets of the homeless family platform, Board of Supervisors President Gonzalez then stated a clear need to increase resources for programs struggling under the yearly budget axe, and recounted his efforts to reform the San Francisco Housing Authority as supervisor. As his time ran short, San Francisco’s Green Party leader Gonzelez vowed he “…will not scapegoat the poor,” and that he would reform San Francisco’s business tax structure.
Longtime COH ally and former Board President Tom Ammiano attacked Care Not Cash directly, comfortably dismissing the Newsom camp-inspired buzz in the mainstream press about the voter’s will vs. political will at the Board of Supervisors. “Prop N was not about the will of the voter. Prop N was about self-promotion,” Tom quipped to wide agreement. Ammiano then cited ex-Mayor Art Agno’s long-abandoned Beyond Shelter plan as a template for effective and humane homeless reform. Tom also praised the Public Health Department’s Direct Access to Housing program as a successful homeless housing model that needs to be expanded.
Connecting his experience as an openly gay man to the everyday discrimination poor people face, Tom rounded out his short time by speaking about the relationships between civil rights abuses and scapegoated classes. He closed by citing his important support for San Francisco’s embattled Day Labor Program, recognizing it as another local injustice based on class, and ended with a call to support his police public oversight reform initiative Prop H on the November ballot.
The kindest thing to say about building contractor Jim Reid’s tenacious intrusions into the last two mayoral contests is that he serves as a signpost to point San Francisco’s homeless debate toward creating new housing. Unfortunately, his 10’x10’ single-occupant dwelling concept, Shelter One, is about the size of a prison cell and still hasn’t caught fire with very many homeless people — despite all Reid’s years of effort and even some mainstream media coverage squandered on it.
“ G o v e r n m e n t makes housing too expensive,” Jim Reid told all the homeless parents. Then he waxed on about how inexpensive Shelter One dwellings are to build, identified potential donors of building supplies, and even envisioned sweat-equity panschemes, somehow oblivious to the fact that Shelter One is a useless concept for housing homeless families. And as a mayoral platform, Shelter One is as thin as Reid’s 21st Century sharecropper shack’s walls.
Angela Alioto delivered some of the trademark passion and directness that frightens her detractors into portraying her as a loose cannon.
But anti-discrimination attorney and former Board of Supervisors President Alioto’s guns made some pretty fearless hits on immediate reforms to solve San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. “It is unconscionable to make a homeless person a criminal,” Angela declared, “Prop M is aimed at criminalizing poor people.” Alioto charged that the reason why San Francisco’s homeless crisis continues to grow is “…government consistently insists on closing programs. That puts more people on the street.” Then Angela Alioto turned her sights on one of the most significant culprits hampering local efforts to solve homelessness: the San Francisco Housing Authority. Referring to the Eye on Housing campaign’s efforts to identify and fill the hundreds of vacant units the Housing Authority seems unwilling to rehab, Alioto asked, “Is there any question this Housing Authority should be fired immediately? They need a new person in charge with new commissioners who understand that their goal is to house people, NOT to create a bureaucracy that does just the opposite.” Republican candidate Tony Ribera followed by recounting his past experience as the police chief who tired to make Frank Jordan’s MATRIX homeless program work, counter-intuitively citing lack of willingness on the part of social workers and health care professionals to partici-pate in police sweeps of homeless people as one big reason for its demise. He said as police chief he learned “Homeless people are very often crime victims, but some committed criminals also pose as homeless.” The former police chief also confessed that he voted for Tom Ammiano in the last election.
last candidate to speak was City Treasurer Susan Leal, who deplored the current state of San Francisco’s shelter system saying, “We don’t have enough shelter, and the shelter we have is inhumane.” Leal also stressed the need to invest more of San Francisco’s General Fund monies in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Matt Gonzalez had the most cerebral and principled take on homeless issues, Tom Ammiano clearly had the best grasp of the issues and was most comfortable discussing them, and Angela Alioto was the most down to earth and passionate. Any of these three candidates represents an opportunity for a radical departure from the criminal neglect of homeless issues during political machine boss Mayor Willie Brown’s tenure.
Vote for one of the others if you want to waste your vote, or for Newsom if you want the Committee on Jobs and the Hotel Council to dictate homeless policy. STREET SHEET also predicts machine appointee Leal will throw her votes to machine appointee Newsom at some point in the next weeks.
But the single most important thing this mayoral race is that we all must unite to support whoever Willie Brown’s political machine heir Gavin Newsom will face in the December runoff. If eight years Willie Brown have taught us nothing else, we all know by it’s time to finally unplug the machine.
STREET SHEET and the Coalition on Homelesness would also like to extend a big THANK YOU to Sharon Johnson from Senator John Burton’s office for all her help, and for arranging use of the State Building’s auditorium.
In this instance, “community members” can be defined as state and city employees, homeless service providers, homeless advocates, media, and campaign staff from all local mayoral and district attorney campaigns.