Community-based organizations that serve homeless people fought hard, and ultimately won, against attempts by the City’s administration to divert federal funds from programs that provide housing and supportive services for homeless people to instead fund creation of new supportive housing units aimed exclusively at the so-called “chronically homeless.”
With this attempt to undermine the current network of services helping homeless and formerly homeless people obtain housing, employment, and health care in order to prioritize the needs of a very narrowly defined minority of the homeless population, Mayor Newsom’s administration followed the marching orders of the Bush administration, and made a mockery of the community processes that have historically determined funding priorities under the McKinney-Vento Act.
At stake was $12 million in federal funds used for many years to support programs that have been very successful in moving people beyond homelessness and poverty.
New guidelines issued by HUD were themselves a slap in the face for local communities—whose needs were ignored to fit the Bush’s administration’s “chronic homelessness” agenda (see “Chronic” Fatigue).
But San Francisco officials, particularly those working at the Department of Human Services (DHS), felt that they could push that envelope open a lot further. They attempted to use the façade of the new federal requirements to rationalize support for Mayor Newsom’s agenda—housing a few hundred highly visible homeless individuals at the expense of thousands more who are being displaced, losing services, and pushed deeper into poverty and despair (also see The Forgotten).
Using dubious rules of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, DHS and Department of Public Health (DPH) officials were able to guarantee city-employed Board members enjoyed a voting block ensuring approval of their proposals, while every community proposal was dismissed without even the benefit of open debate.
In a heated meeting of the Local Board on April 11th, dozens of service providers and homeless people offered three hours of testimony about the importance of the programs that would be terminated to homeless families, battered women, children, veterans, seniors, and immigrants. But this was to no avail, as the block of City employees on the Local Board consistently voted in favor of their predetermined agenda, and rejected every one of the community’s motions.
One week later, the same community of homeless and formerly homeless people, service providers, and advocates were on hand at a hearing of the Board of Supervisors’ City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee—scheduled by Supervisor Chris Daly to gather information on the direction of homeless policy under the Newsom administration.
A revealing moment at that hearing was when Supervisor Daly felt compelled to request City departments would not retaliate against contract agencies offering their comments at that session, for such is the climate of fear and mistrust that DHS has created in the community.
What ensued was four-hour hearing in which a wide variety of elements in the Newsom administration’s homeless policy was scrutinized and criticized. It is worth noting that not a single comment from the public—and they went on for over four hours—defended DHS’s or the Newsom administration’s policies.
While many noted that the idea of making housing the number one priority to end homelessness is certainly the right approach, they also made clear that such housing should never be funded by cutting back or eliminating other programs that serve the poorest residents of San Francisco. Adding insult to injury, this outpouring of criticism did not elicit response from the administration, besides inferring that these complainers were only concerned for the own programs and non-profits—another insane attempt to blame existing programs that actually help homeless people for the lack of political will and financial resources to actually deal with homelessness and poverty from all levels of government.
Unresponsive to the community outcry, DHS proceeded with its agenda as originally planned. In their frenzied grab of funds to promote the Mayor’s own version of the Bush homeless policy, they ignored the community to such an extent that when the applications for the McKinney funds came in, DHS finally realized that service providers actually proposed fewer new housing programs for the “chronically homeless” than the amount of money already set aside for them in the corrupted Local Board process.
At this point, facing a strong and united opposition from the community, DHS began to show signs of willingness to address some of the service providers’ concerns. Some adjustments were made, but the “final” list of McKinney applicants made clear that a few programs would be left out.
Not coincidentally, four of the six programs facing either severe cuts or outright termination were programs that offer transitional housing for battered women and homeless families. Not a coincidence, because if there is something that has been a consistent failure of this administration’s homeless policy, it is its total disregard for the needs of the invisible homeless, particularly homeless families (see ¡Housing First! for Homeless Families).
At the eleventh hour, the final meeting of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, DHS officials—perhaps realizing their decision to decimate programs serving homeless women and children might be hard to explain to the public (even with the support of an ever-adoring media)—brought back a proposal that is much closer to what the community had been suggesting all along.
What the final list of funded programs will look like won’t be known until a few days after this STREET SHEET goes to press. But in the end, this was a victory for a community that showed a display of unity and purpose not often seen previously. We applaud the commitment of these service providers to the homeless people they serve, and we strongly encourage this unity and resolve to continue in the coming month as we navigate the City’s annual budget process.
As for DHS and the other City departments involved in this fiasco, now they will have to work hard to regain trust from those alienated by their quest to bend policy priorities to accommodate the needs of the Mayor’s political agenda.
Next year there will be a new Local Homeless Coordinating Board in place. Homeless and formerly homeless people, service providers, and advocates must ensure that this new Board is truly representative of the community, and that we don’t repeat the mistake of this year’s process again. We must remain united in the defense of what we believe is best to make sure homeless people get housed, and those who are housed stay housed.