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Redesigning San Francisco's Homeless Policy

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A number of recent events have brought back to light the need for creating a comprehensive, community-designed, long-term plan to fight homelessness in San Francisco. From the bogus process enacted by City officials who completely disregarded the community process and hijacked the Local Homeless Coordinating Board to redirect much needed funds from health care, employment training, legal services and other vital services to fund supportive housing for the narrowly-defined chronically homeless and a subsequent massively-attended hearing before the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee of the Board of Supervisors, to the unanimous approval by the same Supervisors of a directive ordering a legislative analysis of the recent homeless count that claimed a reduction of 41% in the numbers of homeless people on the streets, there are many signs that behind the spin and upbeat photo-ops there is little more than a Three-Card Monte game in which numbers are thrown around until we are all dizzy and confused and ready to believe whatever the Chronicle chooses to print on its front page.

What passes now for a successful overhaul of San Francisco’s homeless policies has only two elements: Care Not Cash and the 10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness.

Care Not Cash has fully succeeded in one thing only: precipitously reducing the number of people who receive county assistance—from close to 3,000 to fewer than 1,000. In many cases, recipients simply dropped out of the program after seeing their checks cut from $389 to $59 a month and months later still be living in a shelter without a clear perspective of getting housed —unless you happen to cross the Mayor’s path on Project Connect day, that is. Who wants to sleep on a mat on the floor, perform workfare 8 hours a week and jump through many unreasonable bureaucratic hoops for $59 a month?

Many changes were proposed to the existing Care Not Cash, and we need to particularly remember “Real Housing, Real Care,” a similar measure introduced by Supervisor Chris Daly and approved by the Board that would have amended the original Care Not Cash to force the City to provide at least a SRO hotel room before cutting benefits to any recipient of the county’s cash assistance. Although many of us still disapproved the idea of reducing the meager assistance that barely allowed extremely poor people to survive in our city, at least we wouldn’t have to see people’s checks being cut because they were given a mat to sleep on.

With Care Not Cash’s final victory in the courts, what went into effect on May 3rd, 2004 was the legislation as it was originally conceived by its creators: homeless people could now be stored away in the shelter system for an undetermined period of time and their paltry benefits would be reduced so a few lucky ones could move into an hotel room.

The much-touted 10-year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness (a plan the Coalition helped design and is helping move forward) recognizes on its first pages that the homeless individuals labeled as “chronic” represent only 20% of the total homeless population. Rotating in and out of emergency rooms and jails, they are said to absorb a majority of the resources available for homeless people, hence the priority given to solving their plight. But let’s not forget that they are also said to be the most visible ones —the thorn stuck in the public eye, the ones we keep in mind because they are very much in sight, “the shame of the city.”

If it is, in fact, true that those who are chronically homeless represent the most desperate cases (why a single man who may have lived on the streets for a year is more desperate than a mother of two living in a shelter for battered women for nine months is an arbitrary decision for which we can find no reasonable explanation) and absorb a larger share of the resources, it certainly would make sense to prioritize them over the remaining 80% homeless people.

But, even in that case, we still would need to have a plan for the non-chronically homeless, wouldn’t we? Or are we suggesting that that mother of two I mentioned before has to wait ten years until we are done (or maybe not) housing the chronic ones?

The 10-Year Plan focuses on a narrow slice of the homeless population and was never intended to be the guiding principle by which San Francisco will deal with homelessness as a whole. Yet, this reality seems to escape our officials who proudly proclaim that this plan will finally solve homelessness in our city.

Only by continuing the community effort that went into the creation of the existing 10-year Plan will we actually have a true plan to address homelessness as a whole in place. This process must necessarily include the Board of Supervisors along with the Mayor’s office, for the Board is the only body that actually approves budgets and regulates how services are provided by the City and its contractors. Until the recent hearing mentioned above the Board of Supervisors has been conspicuously absent of the homeless debate since this administration took office, as if they were either afraid of confronting a popular Mayor or believing that everything is just fine as is. The supervisors need to wake up and do their work: this is not the Mayor’s problem – it is San Francisco’s problem and our legislators need to be a part of the debate.

A long-term plan to end homelessness must begin by recognizing that the limited resources available to local governments are not enough. No real plan to end homelessness is viable unless it applies to the whole nation and includes a significant backing of federal dollars. Homelessness is national problem that might be more acute in certain places, but is not at all a local problem.

It must also be driven by a grassroots community effort that brings the ideas from the bottom up, instead of relying on the “brilliant” ideas and “revolutionary” concepts of an elite core of City officials whose commitment to the plan will last only as long as their boss’ term in office. As new mayors and supervisors move into office, new sets of “brilliant” ideas will be generated and implemented, thus endangering any gains made under the previous ones. San Francisco should refuse to be a laboratory for a social experiment, as the Bush administration’s homelessness czar, Philip Mangano, recently said while expressing his support for the Mayor’s policies. At a time when experiments with animals are increasingly under scrutiny, are we going to allow 15,000 homeless persons to become guinea pigs?

Finally, we need to come to an understanding that there are no quick fixes to this problem, and that working toward an end of homelessness requires consistence and perseverance and the kind of work that can’t be summarized in a sound bite or a photo op. Homelessness should not have become the platform on which upwardly mobile politicians stand in order to advance their careers. The real work only gets to be done after the cameras are turned off and the reporters have moved onto the next celebrity trial.

Let’s create a plan to reduce homelessness in San Francisco.

Let’s work on a plan to reduce poverty, the true main cause of homelessness.

Let’s address the problem of affordable housing by making sure we are building enough new affordable housing along with the new high-raise luxury condos that will be coming up soon and use city owned surplus property to house homeless and low-income people.

Let’s work on eviction prevention, living wages, accessible health care that includes mental health and substance abuse treatment, education and civil rights protections for all.

Anything else may sound great on the evening news but at the end of the day it will still leave thousands of people out on the streets.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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