On July 24, the Board of Supervisors approved a record budget for the City and County of San Francisco: a whopping $6.06 billion.
As our readers know, despite the huge amount of money available to the Mayor for this year’s Budget, his proposal focused on a so-called “back-to-basics” approach of increasing funding for police and infrastructure, with very generous allocations to certain pet projects, such as the controversial Poverty Court, which could throw more homeless people in jail while pretending to refer them to services cut by the same Budget.
The Budget process was also marked this year by political and personal battles between the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors, and among the Supervisors themselves. While the issues at hand were of crucial importance to the future of our city, media coverage of the Budget battle focused on matters of personal animosity. When given the choice between news and sensationalism, the mainstream media opted for the low road.
The sudden replacement of Chris Daly as Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee created a great disruption in the process. As a result, the work done by dozens of community organizations through the People’s Budget Collaborative was seriously jeopardized at the very end of the process. Although most of the cuts to social and health programs proposed by the Mayor had been reduced or eliminated, a breakdown in the communication between community advocates and the Supervisors left a couple of glaring holes: Buster’s Place—the only 24-hour drop-in center available to homeless people in San Francisco—would have been closed by July 15, and the SRO Families Collaborative—a program to help families in SROs move into real, affordable housing—would have had its funding reduced to a point at which operation would have been impossible.
Through the relentless effort of many organizations, loosely connected through the People’s Budget, the cuts to basic services such as shelters, health clinics, drug treatment, mental health, HIV prevention, and others were almost completely restored. Fundamental services such as Caduceus Outreach, the Women’s Community Clinic, Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project, Quan Yin Healing Arts Center, and others were saved from closure or capacity reduction. At the 11th hour, Board President Aaron Peskin was able to restore funding for the SRO Families Collaborative by reducing the allocation to the Broadway Tunnel project in his own district.
Buster’s Place was also saved from closure by a last-minute motion to redirect $1 million from the affordable housing fund approved by the Budget Committee. Although this is significantly lower than the $1.5 million initially budgeted for this program, it will at least guarantee its operation until 2008.
The Supervisors did not buy the Newsom spin machine’s proposal to dedicate $754,000 to a Poverty Court to prosecute homeless people. Since the Mayor’s office has presented no plan for this court, the Supervisors cut the funding to $500,000 and placed it on reserve, which means the Mayor will have to bring to the Board an actual plan before using the money.
The fact that the Board of Supervisors had to reduce the allocation for affordable housing in order to fund a drop-in center for homeless people is a Sophie’s choice. The only saving grace was that it was never very clear how the housing funds would be spent, while the closure of Buster’s Place would have had a concrete and immediate impact on hundreds of homeless people who use their services daily.
The Board should also have taken the initiative to completely eliminate the funding for the Poverty Court, as the Mayor never presented any meaningful plan about how that court would improve safety in the Tenderloin, and not increase the rates of poor people’s incarceration for status crimes such as sleeping in the sidewalks or asking for change. Unfortunately, the political and media climate put many of the Supervisors in a defensive mode, and they seemed unwilling to actually rebuke the Mayor on this misguided initiative. (Note: Other developments around the court proposal are confirming our position—shared by many of the key players in the criminal justice system—that persecuting homeless people for crimes of poverty is not a good idea. Stay tuned for more on this next month.)
Although many consider the unusual personal and political hostility we witnessed this year as the ugliest aspect of the Budget process, we choose another:
The fact that the most basic needs of the most vulnerable segments of our society were hold hostage by political machinations and misguided priorities in a year with a record budget does not speak highly of our society. Having to fight tooth and nail at the very last minute to find 1/6,000 of the Budget to fund the only place available 24 hours a day to homeless people is a rather obscene way of doing business. It is very telling that, in the same way we are choosing as a nation to put more money into fighting wars and oppressing people halfway around the globe than into all other government areas (such as housing, health, education, infrastructure, everything) combined, here in San Francisco we are putting the needs of the poorest at the very bottom of our priorities and leaving them to be dealt with at the very end, almost as an afterthought.
Another way of organizing our society is needed, and indeed, possible.