Mayor Gavin Newsom has a problem—that much is clear. When he was elected, everyone seemed to agree that his problem was with homelessness. And these days, especially if you look to the Chronicle for the bulk of your San Francisco news coverage, you might get the impression that his problem is going away.
But if you dig down a little deeper, and look at what’s actually happening on this City’s streets and in its corridors of power, a far different story would begin to emerge. The fact is, our mayor still has a problem with homelessness—and it’s not just the fact that the streets of San Francisco remain home to numerous people on the margins. Newsom’s problem now is that he seems to feel that he has all the answers to ending homelessness in San Francisco and need pay attention neither to the input of the community nor the lessons of the past.
A recent example of this is the way that his administration virtually hijacked this year’s McKinney funding process. The McKinney money is a massive federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for which cities must submit yearly applications detailing the ways in which they intend to utilize the funds. Projects to be funded are rated according to a scoring system whose outlines are suggested by HUD but whose particulars are left up to each city individually; HUD then rates each city’s application according to a score card of its own devising, and a decision is made on whether to fund and if so, at what level.
In San Francisco, the McKinney grant is administered through the funding committee of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, a policy advisory body that was formed in 1997 as part of the City’s Continuum of Care Plan. (Note: Though the federally mandated 10-Year Plan that debuted last year has had a monopoly on media mention of late, the Continuum of Care remains the City’s official policy paper on homelessness. This plan proposed provision of both housing and a wide range of services to meet the needs of the entire homeless community, including families and children, immigrants, seniors, and disabled people, in contrast to the 10-Year Plan, with its focus on the “chronically homeless.”) Under the Board’s direction, last year’s McKinney funding round garnered a substantial $17 million for San Francisco, and in addition to funding housing projects, allotted a significant portion of that money to support some twenty-odd community-based organizations providing services such as SSI advocacy, childcare, legal assistance, low or no-cost health care (physical and mental), and employment programs-in keeping with the Continuum of Care’s broad-based approach.
This year, in a series of political maneuvers that began on March 29, 2005, during a meeting of the local board’s funding committee, city board representatives convened a special steering committee meeting specifically for the purpose of adopting drastic changes to the City’s McKinney scoring tool. This move was done with the intent to circumvent any possible resistance from community board representatives, and reflects the Newsom Administration’s new Housing First emphasis, seemingly at the expense of a number of existing service programs that came into being under the auspices of the Continuum of Care Plan. Attempts to ensure some continuity through a mandated million-dollar cap on the amount of funding that could be shifted from current programs to new housing projects also failed at this time, while the Mayor’s Office was said to be asking that the cap be set no lower than $4 million.
On the April 13, 2005, at a full local board meeting, the community process was again derailed as city reps on the local board voted in a block to defeat a motion to reopen the McKinney scoring tool for discussion. A motion was then made on the behalf of the community providers to set the new housing projects funding cap at $2 million, but this also failed. Finally, in the closing moments, an agreement was made for a cap of $3 million.
There were also conflict of interest concerns, which made it improper for those community board members affiliated with services that received McKinney monies to vote, though board representatives affiliated with City departments were not prohibited from voting. City departments were shielding themselves behind a very questionable City Attorney’s interpretation of conflict of interests… no surprise there. There were also concerns about possible Sunshine law violations, though not enough to warrant investigation.
Ultimately, it was established that Local Board by-laws pertaining to public comment were not properly followed. However none of the procedural problems were enough to reverse the decisions made at the March 29 funding/steering committee and the report found no wrongdoing on the part of the City’s board representatives.
Housing First Does Not Mean Housing Only
So what’s really going on here? The Mayor admits that he is not a big supporter of the Continuum of Care Plan… which remains to this day the City’s only official plan for addressing homelessness. Instead, he supports the federal government’s “Housing First” agenda, which served as a model for the Ten-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness, the policy that he appointed Angela Alioto to create shortly after taking office.
The Ten-Year Plan, or Housing First, is essentially based on the premise that housing must have priority over services. The main focus of the plan is the City’s chronic homeless population, which consists of around 3000 (notably the most visible homeless) out of an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 of San Francisco’s total homeless population. This shift of policy from the Continuum to the ten-year plan represents a drastic change in philosophy in dealing with homelessness here in San Francisco.
Although, the Continuum of Care Plan has its flaws it does address the City’s entire homeless population from seniors to youth to families and single adults. Also, the Continuum of Care Plan was truly a community endeavor. The planning drafting as well as the local board came out of the Continuum of Care Plan.
We all agree housing is our ultimate goal but, the truth is that most homeless people, especially those who fall within the definition of the “ chronic homeless” need more than a roof over their heads-they need a floor and a foundation of support under them so they do not fall though the cracks and become homeless again.
The Motive? Care Not Cash
With the failure of last November’s Proposition A, Mayor Newsom, desperate to find new sources of funding, set his sights on the McKinney funding stream. Why? Because the truth is that the Mayor’s much-touted Care Not Cash program is fiscally insolvent. It does not have enough to funds to create the housing it claims it can provide.
Our Goal: A Unified Strategy
Our goal as a city should be to create a unified strategy to tackle homelessness. If San Francisco has any hope in resolving this issue, it will take the efforts of the entire community. However, for this to happen, the Mayor must change his top-down approach to this issue: he must not just give lip service to the community process but engage in it.