Proposition N, “Care Not Cash,” passed by voters in November 2002, was implemented this past spring. San Franciscans thought they were voting for an initiative that took money from individuals’ welfare checks to purchase services such as housing and treatment for “bulk” prices. Contrary to local media coverage that has been promoting the glories of this legislation, though, it has not played out that way. Instead, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is simply placing the bulk of welfare recipients in existing shelters and using the money taken from their checks to pay for the lucky few who are offered actual housing. (More specifically, as of this September, only 277 homeless clients had been housed—a far cry from the 2,900 who were homeless and receiving aid when Prop N passed.)
Of course, with less than 2,000 shelter beds and at least 9,000 homeless people in the City as a whole, this is an interesting proposition. Prior to its implementation of Prop N, DHS surveyed shelter providers, who reported that the overwhelming majority of their clients did not even receive welfare. This survey found that most of those then “served” by the shelter system worked, received other benefits in the form of disability, retirement, or veterans’ payments, or had no income whatsoever.
Initially, DHS plans under Prop N called for simply prioritizing welfare recipients over these people when it came to allocating shelter beds. The Coalition led a successful campaign to pass legislation at the Board of Supervisors to ensure that did not happen. This legislation, which passed unanimously, states that the shelters may not prioritize, set aside, or reserve beds based on income source.
Unfortunately, for the most part, DHS has blithely ignored the new law and moved on with its Prop N implementation plans. As a result, since the advent of Care Not Cash, shelter access for non-welfare recipients has sharply diminished, and shelter demographics have dramatically changed. For example, MSC South, the city’s largest shelter, is now made up almost entirely of welfare recipients.
Facing Homelessness “One Day at a Time”
The worst part is that under Prop N, empty shelter beds have become an epidemic, with shelter slots being reserved for welfare recipients whether they show up or not. In contrast, vulnerable populations, such as seniors and disabled people, can gain access to these beds only after 8:00 p.m., and even then, only on a “one-day-at-a-time” basis. This means that they are forced to get up early each morning and tote their belongings to a resource center, there to await day’s end, hoping again to achieve a late-night, single-night shelter slot. Even those lucky enough to secure a shelter bed have already missed out on the shelter-furnished dinner and health care. Sadly, with 30 percent fewer long-term beds available, providers are reporting that their more fragile clients—people would previously have been stabilized by case management until a suitable long-term housing solution was found—are simply unable to navigate the “resource center shuffle” and are ending up on the streets.
For homeless people, a place to sleep is a top priority. Finding a secure spot—one that’s dry, safe, possibly well-lit or completely hidden, and most important, free from police or resident harassment—is a tricky proposition during the late afternoon. Finding such a spot late at night is a near impossibility.
Before the advent of Care Not Cash, extremely popular shelters such as Hospitality House were always full. Such small shelters catered to disabled and vulnerable homeless clients on an ongoing basis, offering these people a sense of community and stability. Now they have as many as eight to 10 vacancies a night, as the “one-day-at-a-time,” after 8:00 p.m. check-in system does not work for their clientele. Dolores Street has 20 of its 100 shelter beds reserved for Care Not Cash; these beds often go empty. In addition, this shelter targets undocumented workers, who, under the centrally distributed, “one-day-at-a-time” shelter slot allotment policy must make a daily trek from the Mission downtown to the resource center. There, they are forced to spend what would otherwise be their working hours waiting in a culturally inappropriate environment until the magical 8 p.m. witching hour to be “served” by the possible assignment of a bed for that night…and that night only, of course. Previously, immigrants frequently utilized the shelter at MSC South, but post-Care Not Cash, that demographic has declined dramatically.
At the end of the day, homeless people are left with few options. Beds that do exist pose transportation problems and mandate late-night entry and early-morning exodus. Examples include Providence shelter in Bayview/Hunters Point and Ella Hill Hutch, where residents are allowed in only at 10:00 p.m. and must leave by 6:00 a.m.
Not only the providers, but also the welfare recipients themselves are complaining about Care Not Cash. Those who remain in the “shelter system” lament the fact they find themselves unable to choose shelters that they feel are safe and must take what is offered them or have nothing at all. And regardless of whether they end up in shelter or housing, welfare recipients are finding that under the tender mercies of Care Not Cash, they lack sufficient money for food and their situation is more desperate than ever.
“Mastering” the Housing Crisis
Meanwhile, the “master-lease” scheme that is at the center of Prop N’s provision of housing finds the City spending the equivalent of a unit’s purchase price for a 10-year “master lease.” This means that a decade down the road, when these leases run out, that money will simply have gone into property owners’ pockets, with no gain in City-run available housing. Moreover, under Prop N, additional public money is being used to “rehabilitate” the leased housing, increasing property values—as well as the odds that landlords might simply choose to sell buildings for a profit at lease’s end, thus creating massive displacement of [apparently] marginally housed individuals.
DHS claims to be utilizing empty hotel rooms, but whenever it opens a “new” hotel, there is a magical drop in tenancy. The remaining residents then find themselves not only facing new management, but also living under the requirements of a new and different lease agreement. As a result, many people who previously found maintaining their tenancy no problem find themselves out of housing for lease violations, thus freeing up the rooms for… well, welfare recipients. All so DHS can claim to be running a successful program and decreasing the welfare rolls by the hundreds.
What fails to be pointed out is how this system serves to project vast numbers of people further into destitution and despair. The way it works is this: When people apply for General Assistance (GA), they are referred to a shelter for 30 to 45 days or to an SRO—if one is available at the point in time at which they apply. This means that one person might be lucky enough to get a hotel room on the first try, while the next person in line gets assigned a shelter slot. Roughly a month later, when the person stuck into the shelter system returns for the scheduled follow-up appointment, he or she again runs the risk of being assigned to a shelter for a 30- to-45-day stint, while someone else applying for the first time may get a hotel room. Simply put, housing options under Care Not Cash appear to depend on the “luck of the line.” DHS administrators are forced to admit that there’s no guarantee that someone won’t be stuck in the shelter loop indefinitely, and to date, they have offered no plan to address this problem.
These are just some of the issues with Prop N, “Care Not Cash,” and there are countless more. The initial concept was flawed, and hurt homeless people receiving aid. If you could house people for $300 a month in San Francisco, it already would have been done—welfare recipients would simply have found housing on their own. However, the implications of trying to make this flawed concept work are cancerous—eating away at an already deeply damaged societal safety net. Care Not Cash has not only delivered its promised 85 percent cuts in homeless people’s welfare checks (not precisely a positive move, at least in the eyes of those whose ability to purchase life-sustaining materials such as food and medicine has been deeply diminished), but also created wholesale displacement of poor and homeless people from hotels and shelters and changed successful, grassroots service providers into unfriendly welfare institutions.
But hey, it’s a great slogan and a winning sound bite. For more information on how to get involved, contact Jennifer Friedenbach at 346-3740 x311.