Could a year get any rougher for poor folks in Frisco?
The city seems to be building housing left and right, but, as evidenced by a March report by Marc Solomon, that housing is apparently doing far more to attract more wealthy residents than to house existing low-income San Franciscans.
The city’s daily paper of record has declared a self-serving war on poor people, people dealing with mental illnesses, users of harm reduction programs, and even recyclers, calling for the elimination of existing programs and solutions as varied as: 1) jail; 2) increased citations, followed by jail; and 3) forced treatment and… jail. The result has been predictable: The first of the most repulsive Chronicle columns was published one week after the murder of a homeless man in the Mission. Two more murders occurred in Golden Gate Park over the Fall.
Finally, the executive leadership of this city has failed homeless people. By late last year, the Newsom administration was already beginning to backslide away from its espoused belief in housing as a solution to homelessness. The situation continued to deteriorate after the homeless count could find no real change in homelessness in San Francisco, despite the Mayor’s best showmanship. (As the old Christmas poem has it, Some say the Gav’s heart shrank three sizes that day.) This year, Care Not Cash was accompanied by Heavy-Handed Harassment Not Housing: In May, the Mayor politicked his way around a direct veto of a Board allocation of $28 million in affordable housing, but managed to quash the measure nonetheless through questionably legal means. The Mayor has campaigned continually behind a Community Court or Community Justice Center or something, but hasn’t been able to be too clear about any aspect of it other than that it will somehow solve poverty through tough love. And finally, the Mayor has increased displacements and rumors of displacements—displacement being one of the most ineffective approaches to homelessness—in a frenzied effort to hush ignorant media critics.
We have more violence against homeless and poor people, gang injunctions for black- and brown-skinned kids, huge increases in City-funded health care in the form of co-pays, and poor people’s programs closing and opening like the mouths of so many snapping turtles.
In spite of all this meanness, inside this media-controlled, whitewashed reality of increasing income disparities, a shrinking working class, and increasing homelessness, poor people’s movements in San Francisco are still standing and accomplishing a hell of a lot.
San Francisco’s 2007 Homeless Count took place the night of January 31, supposedly between 8 p.m. and midnight, though the extent of the terrain assigned to census-taking groups required some to work past midnight, and discouraged others to the point where they packed it in early. Although the results of the count would not be made public until the end of March, it was no doubt clear quite early on that the number of homeless people in San Francisco had not decreased since 2005. In fact, according to the count’s statistics, homelessness had actually grown by 2%.
These numbers, as we reported, were almost meaningless, but the more meaningless the numbers, the easier the spin: A microscopic survey indicated that about a third of all homeless San Franciscans had been homeless somewhere else before they arrived in the city. This means, of course, that two thirds of homeless San Franciscans were made homeless by conditions in this city. It’s also interesting to note that according to the aforementioned research by Marc Solomon (published at about the same time as the Homeless Count report), over two thirds of residents of luxury condominiums were new to San Francisco.
Also in the Winter was Federal Homelessness Czar Phil Mangano’s visit to San Francisco to announce the City’s receipt of a record $18.8 million in homeless service funds. At the same time, the Federal government was cutting funding to public housing yet again, effectively mugging Peter to toss Paul a dime.
Some of the harshest effects of that HUD-mugging have been felt by now-homeless or underhoused families. At the tail end of March, families from the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Coalition on Homelessness began rallying to get their concerns heard by the Mayor. As the Street Sheet wrote in April: ‘With 3,000 homeless families in San Francisco, [the City’s existing housing plan] will aid less than 3% of the total population of families in need, leaving roughly 2,920 families without housing.’ This organizing culminated in a children’s march to the Mayor’s Office on Mother’s Day, at which they were shut out. This work continued throughout the Summer, and would peak again in the Fall.
That the children had trouble finding the Mayor should perhaps not be surprising, given the exec’s penchant for travel. Mayor Newsom returned from one of many trips to New York City on March 15. Impressed by Republican efforts, Newsom revived the idea of a court designed to selectively prosecute poor people—an idea he’d initially mentioned in December. It should not be surprising that organizations interested in the civil rights of all San Franciscans opposed: On April 25, representatives from numerous community organizations, as well as unaffiliated citizens concerned about how they themselves or their fellow San Franciscans might be affected by such courts, marched and rallied against these poverty courts. They would see a major success come Summer.
The Spring was a mixed time for the City-funded shelter system. On March 19, Buster’s Place, a 24-hour drop-in facility for homeless people opened its doors, replacing the venerable McMillan Drop-In Center. Buster’s Place was a major coup for homeless people, largely because it almost never existed: The City had planned to close McMillan with no plans for a replacement, and only stalled when pressed by homeless people and service providers who knew what this could mean to San Francisco’s most vulnerable citizens.
But not too long after the opening of this important supplement to the shelter system, the Coalition on Homelessness released a ground-breaking report entitled Shelter Shock, which revealed a shelter system in which under one third of all facilities met basic health and hygiene standards, and 55% of residents reported experiencing various forms of personal abuse. This report led directly to a collaboration with Supervisor Tom Ammiano which eventually resulted in the introduction of legislation that will, if passed create a minimum standard of care for all City-funded shelters, and means of redress for residents whose rights have been violated. These standards would require healthy and hygienic conditions, require toilet paper and hand soap dispensers inside bathrooms, the treatment of residents with dignity and respect, clean sheets and pillows and many other fundamentals.
We could have hoped for a better anniversary for the Summer of Love. On July 17, Ramon Lopez, a homeless person, was slain in the Mission District. Less than a week later, the San Francisco Chronicle began its campaign of hate through a series of columns masked as journalistic articles. Before this string of classist vitriol was quelled by the charity deemed appropriate for the Winter holidays, there would be two more murders.
The first articles fumed about the presence of poor people in Golden Gate Park. We wrote, at the time: ‘Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the recent hysteria was that nothing actually happened. Or, more precisely, nothing happened until after the news had already been invented. No child stepped on one of the supposedly ubiquitous syringes, no cooking fire got out of hand, no sleeping body tripped a morning jogger.’ The Chronicle, banking on a Net-funded future, manipulated public opinion and used these columns to attract visitors to the paper’s just-barely interactive Website, thereby increasing advertising revenue.
But the community did not sit idly by: POOR Magazine organized a protest in front of the Chronicle’s offices, denouncing the demonization of poor people. Service providers and advocacy organizations have provided consistent response, both in the Chronicle and in alternative media.
Over the Summer, the second estate didn’t serve poor people much better than did the fourth. As mentioned above, Mayor Newsom cut housing funds allocated by the Board of Supervisors, and put forward a budget that somehow managed to place ‘I’m spoiling for a rumble’ on a balance sheet. And a rumble the Mayor got, resulting in one of the most tragically politicized budget processes in years. The silver lining to this cloud, however, is that the People’s Budget— a collaborative effort by numerous community organizations—was able to see slashed services restored to the trickle-down budget initially proposed by the Mayor, and was even able to get certain new funds added. The People’s Budget helped come up with funding alternatives, it staved off the closure of the only 24-hour drop-in center for homeless people in the city, it pushed for and got badly-needed funding to one of our most important mental health programs in the city, and it prevented cuts to funding for families living in Single Room Occupancy Hotels. It was up to the last minute, but in the end the Board of Supervisors did the right thing, and even funded affordable housing for families at $8.3 million.
By the end of the Summer, however, equally menacing cuts came through on the state level, from which Governor Schwarzenegger cut $527 million in health and human services.
On October 4, Religious Witness with Homeless People held a press conference in City Hall, announcing that, since the beginning of the Newsom régime, the San Francisco Police Department had given out almost 47,000 citations for “quality of life” violations—the status crimes reserved for homeless people. Unfortunately, the Mayor was unable to attend—the previous evening, he scheduled a last-minute press conference of his own, to be held at a hotel in the Tenderloin at the exact same time.
This type of timing is perhaps not damning, but is decidedly suspicious: Newsom has been consistently sensitive about his representation in the media, and has gone to some rather bizarre lengths to counter bad publicity. Following the Chronicle philippics of the late Summer, the Mayor ordered new displacement efforts in Golden Gate Park. These continued through the Fall, and were meant to spread to other neighborhoods. In October, Supervisor Chris Daly publicized a Mayor’s Office plan to conduct predawn police raids in the South of Market district, issuing citations in manners that seemed, at least at face value, to be contrary to the law. Publicity and advocacy on the part of the Coalition on Homelessness was able to see these raids averted, and converted instead to innocuous outreach efforts.
The Coalition on Homelessness was not the only organization turning the Summer’s lemons into lemonade. On October 18, the Alliance for Saving Lives held a symposium on the creation of a safe injection site in San Francisco.
Very early this year, in February, we published an article asking Mayor Newsom to help make this the last homeless generation. With or without the Mayor, representatives from the Coalition on Homelessness, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation, La Voz Latina, St. Peter’s Housing Clinic, SomCan, and Hamilton Family Shelter are working together to see that rental subsidies are used in a manner most conducive to housing homeless families. These are organizations that truly believe that a San Francisco without family homelessness is possible.
Poor people’s movements are trying to exist in a context where even the Left doesn’t see organizing homeless people as a viable activity—having internalized our country’s unique form of unrecognized classism. But efforts like the above, and like the People’s Budget, give us hope that collaboration is a very real prospect, and one that can lead to some real wins for homeless people, and real change in the way this country and city address homelessness. And maybe someday soon, we won’t have to do a homeless year in review.
Coalition on Homelessness
- Released Shelter Shock—a report on human rights violations in the shelter system, revealing that 55% of all shelter clients reported experiencing some form of abuse, and bringing media light and legislative action to these problems.
- Handled more than 1,800 civil rights cases for almost 1,000 individuals, with a greater than 98% success rate.
- Together with allies, saw $8.3 million in support for homeless and low-income families added to the municipal budget.
- Formed a mostly client-run monitoring committee to ensure that rental subsidies designed for homeless families be available to San Francisco’s lowest-income families.
- Provided a supplemental income for 230 Street Sheet vendors every month—in an income opportunity equal to 121% the total cash assistance provided homeless people by the County.
- Saved the city’s only twenty-four-hour drop-in center from closure.
- Brought the Street Sheet on-line through the Street Sheet blog.