Just few days shy of Halloween this year (October 26, to be exact), Mayor Gavin Newsom delivered his third annual State of the City Address. The speech, a lengthy affair that clocked in at something under two hours but well over one, touched at least briefly on virtually every issue of conceivable public interest (potholes to parking to parks, and that’s only the P’s), in tones that varied from the frankly self-critical (“…one of the ongoing frustrations for anyone who lives here is just how hard it can be to get a simple answer or basic service from City Hall”) to the fully self-congratulatory (“San Francisco is nationally and internationally recognized as a City of innovation, entrepreneurialship [sic] and discovery”); suggested no small number of new initiatives; and overall touted San Francisco as a great place to live—a place where , according to our Mayor, “quality of life” for all of its residents is key.
It seems that in Newsom parlance, “quality of life” is what San Francisco is all about: we want it, we have it to a high degree, but we are always looking to improve upon it. According to the language of the address, quality of life starts with the small things (for example, filling in a pothole) and goes on to encompass everything from working toward wi-fi access for all to developing and deploying high-tech environmentally sound and more-easily-hailable taxis (think GPS).
Unfortunately, for listeners familiar with the phrase “quality of life” in a very different context—this administration’s recent crackdown on homeless people for minor, unavoidable infractions such as “camping,” “sleeping in public,” and the like (collectively termed “quality of life” offenses)—Newsom’s attempt to put a more positive spin on this troubling term seemed more tired trick than early treat.
What makes Newsom’s apparent insensitivity to the negative connotations of the phrase in question not only regrettable, but also surprising is the fact that homelessness is—or at least was—Newsom’s signature issue—the engine that powered his rapid rise through local political ranks. He’s even been referred to as “San Francisco’s first homeless mayor” on occasion, not just in the local press, but in nationwide mainstream media channels.
Perhaps the phrase was unfairly taken out of context? Let’s examine the context in question, the official text of Newsom’s address, in which homelessness makes its appearance at roughly the halfway point. More specifically, the speech segues semi-seamlessly from the need for “greener, safer streets” to a pledge to help create the same by assisting SF’s merchants and property owners as they “fight the relentless scourge of graffiti” to a stirring call for unity as we take on “the greatest challenge our City still faces—homelessness.”
Roughly rendered then, the context goes something like this: SF’s street signs should be scrawl-free, its streets should be secure… and now let’s talk about homelessness. The subtext seems clear: street vandalism and petty crime, which detract from the city’s quality of life, are positioned at least in part as the province of that perpetually problematic homeless population. Which in turn is why, apparently, it continues to be SF policy to prosecute homeless people for those so-called quality of life offenses—despite this approach’s well-documented astronomical cost-to-benefit ratios (roughly $6 million since 2003; no discernible benefit) and as opposed to shifting funds and resources from the punitive to any number of potential positives (education, healthcare, job training, even housing).
Newsom began his discussion of homelessness on a positive note, rapidly reeling off a series of statistics as proof points of previous policy effectiveness. But the talk of law enforcement tactics swiftly recurred, this time in the context of supportive housing, a move that shifted this hitherto positive plank of Newsom’s homeless policy toward the punitive. Specifically, the speech lumped quality of life offenses in with street-level drug sales and consumption, vandalism, and theft; cited “substance abuse and mental illness” as causal in San Francisco’s recent epidemic of street crime as well as endemic in its homeless population, and spoke of the need for “services,” only to end on this oddly threatening note: “The City will continue to offer treatment options, sure… but we’re going to make it clear that, if you refuse treatment, there will be consequences.”
In fact, punitive policies seemed very much the order of the day, as Newsom introduced a new initiative in the area of enforcement: the Serial Inebriate Program. Patterned after a similar effort in San Diego, the program will be “a collaboration of our homeless outreach workers, the Department of Human Services, the City Attorney, Public Defender, District Attorney and the courts that provides treatment for chronic alcoholism.” Details were scarce to nonexistent, but as part of the same push, Newsom spoke of working with liquor store owners “to limit sales of certain kinds of alcohol in critical areas of the City,” more specifically stating, “It is wrong for liquor stores to sell high-proof alcohol to certain individuals at 6 a.m. in the morning… That’s got to stop.”
As does this article… but not before making a final foray into the realm of fair play through provision of proper context: Having entered into his discussion of homelessness through the somewhat questionable gateway of graffiti and unsafe streets, Newsom exited it with an even more regrettable segue, to perhaps the only issue residents find even more inflammatory: San Francisco’s sadly high homicide rate.
The Matrix Revisited
If all this talk of prosecuting homeless people sounds disturbingly familiar, just cast your mind back to former Mayor Frank Jordan’s Matrix Program, an enforcement-based model that became notorious for its combination of police excess and practical inefficacy. That is, unless you credit it with Jordan’s subsequent Election Day debacle, in the wake of which we were treated to Willie’s take on the whole homelessness issue—from the high comedy of the hastily-convened “Shopping Cart Wars” to roughly the same, sorry low: piecemeal policies uniformly lacking in discernible effect.
All of which is what has allowed Newsom to appear genuinely progressive in his approach to homelessness to date, despite factors that might figure into a more conservative assessment, such as the major flaws of Care Not Cash and the problematic paternalism and questionable corporate co-option of Project Homeless Connect. In addition, several Newsom policy shifts while in office—in particular, his move to a Housing First model and his adoption of a more broad-based view of homelessness that acknowledges issues of immigrants and homeless families—were widely welcomed by the progressive groups from whose platforms these policies derived.
So all that said, which way does SF’s homelessness policy appear to be headed? Following are recommendations drawn from a companion piece to Newsom’s speech: the SFPO’s report titled State of the City: Style over Substance—a “pre-rebuttal” of Newsom’s address that sadly failed to receive the media coverage it merits. These suggestions are offered here in happy contemplation of Newsom’s past willingness not only to contemplate, but also to appropriate virtually in their entirety approaches advocated by activists. (And, in all honesty, in no small degree of anxiety, reflecting growing fear that Newsom is in danger of slipping as he walks the path toward true progressive homelessness policies, and sadly relapsing, first toward overuse of law enforcement tactics, and ultimately toward their abuse).
Is policy recidivism in San Francisco’s future?