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The Lash-back response to the Fair Shelter Initiative

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On June 21st, Supervisor Jane Kim introduced the “Fair Shelter Initiative” which makes a simple change to Newsom’s Care not Cash program by removing shelter beds from the definition of housing. With the response from the city’s most powerful, you would have thought she was drowning a kitten, or lighting the Musuem of Modern Art on fire, or, I don’t know, refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. They completely freaked out, pulled out their peeners (whoops, I mean guns) and declared war.
The allegations went flying and included, among many:

  • Progressive Supervisors secretly plotted to put this on the ballot (funny, they introduced legislation at a public meeting–isn’t that always the way it goes?)
  • Progressive Supervisors put this on the ballot as a wedge issue (hmm, to draw more progressives to the polls? Is there a progressive in town that doesn’t vote in every election?)
  • The initiative will dismantle Care not Cash (I thought Care not Cash was about housing. So now they are saying the entirety of the program is shelter?)

The allegations are so long, in fact, that we have included a list of myths and facts here in the Street Sheet just to clear the air. However, I think it is worth talking about why the Coalition on Homelessness decided to pitch the initiative to Supervisors and bring it forward to voters. Why?

You see, the Coalition on Homelessness is just so misunderstood. We are not ideologues–our structure prevents that. We do outreach to homeless people, find out what they want us to fight for, and then we fight for them. This may come as a surprise to some, but our job is to actually represent poor and homeless people: the most hated, disenfranchised, patronized, and demonized group of folks in the city. You see, homelessness is where all forms of oppression intersect–racism, homophobia, fear of disability, all of that. But since it is a diverse group of people who only have in common being too poor to afford a place to live, it is somehow OK to hate them.

We have no political aspirations, we are not political appointees, and we are not seeking to increase any Poverty Pimp contracts held with the City. We simply sacrifice and work hard because we truly believe that every human being has the right to housing, the right to food and economic security, and will thrive if given the opportunity.

Now that the hidden agenda and mischevious motives have been dispensed with, you are probably wondering what this “disturbing the peace in city hall” initiative is all about.

We have been doing extensive outreach to shelter residents and shelter seekers for years and the same issue comes up over and over. There is mass inequity in the shelter system where 7% of the homeless population (adults on county assistance) get 41% of the beds. The rest of the folks–people with disabilities, seniors, working people, undocumented folks, individuals collecting unemployment–must compete for the remaining beds. They start at 3:00 am and go on until 10:00 at night, perhaps (if they’re “lucky”) getting a bed for one night and having to start the process all over again the next day.

Let me break it down for you. Let’s take Sue ZeeQue. She became homeless after losing work. Like most of us, she was “just a paycheck away” from being homeless. She didn’t have any family or a trust fund to fall back on and when her unemployment ran out she went to the city for some help and signed up for public assistance. As she was homeless, the welfare office offered her a shelter bed. It would not have mattered if she took it or not–once it was offered, her cash assistance was reduced by 85%. She may languish in the shelter for months or years before they offer her any real housing, trying humbly to feed herself on two dollars a day without cooking facilities or a fridge.

Meanwhile, Laura Jean has been seeking shelter, starting early each day–pushing her walker across town, trying not to stop and cry. After 8 grueling days, she finally gets a shelter bed, and to her dismay she notices a bunch of empty beds. She asks some questions and discovers Care not Cash is to blame–the inequity locks elders like her out–the empty beds are due to the fact that when county welfare recipients don’t use the bed it is not released but for one night, and late at night. The drill is go to Glide in the Tenderloin at 3:00 am, go to MSC-South at 5th and Bryant at 9:00. Get a wristband at 11:00 am. Come back at 5:00. Wait some more until beds are released at 7:00 pm. Wait some more until 10:00 when the last of the beds are released. Laura Jean was tired.

If the Fair Shelter Initiative passes, Sue ZeeQue would get her full grant until she was offered real housing. Sue ZeeQue could still get shelter, but she would be on equal footing with Laura Jean. With the full grant, her hunger will be alleviated, and the city would be pressured to offer her some housing more quickly. Laura Jean will more likely get a long term bed until housing is available, given that she is elderly and at risk.

The beauty of all of this is that the housing funding under Care Not Cash would be protected. The fund is set at the 2002 expenditure level (what they were spending on cash assistance to homeless people at the time.) It is paying for the housing and will continue to pay for the housing if Fair Shelter passes.

In the end, fair shelter will protect the housing funds, while creating equity in the shelter system.

As for the opposition…why are they freaking out so much? Well, beyond it being viewed as an absolute sin for poor homeless folks to have a little income, it is shaking the tree of absolute truth that has been created in the media: that everything is being done for homeless people, and that those who are still homeless have simply chosen to be homeless, and that Care not Cash is an amazing cure all for anyone who ever wants to get elected.

Back here at the Coalition, well, we are just trying to improve the lives of destitute San Franciscans, and nobody seems to like that. Oh yeah, except the formerly homeless who now have a shot at not dying in the street.

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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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