The past few years have been brutally cruel to the poorest San Franciscans. They have watched access to health care erode, school staffing slashed, and a whole host of specialized community programs shut their doors due to budget cuts. For homeless people, it has meant the loss of six drop-in centers and exhaustingly long waits for shelters. Over 3,000 people now wait in line every day at the Saint Anthony’s Foundation for lunch. The situation is tense for many struggling to make ends meet.
Six months ago, San Francisco’s budget forecast was grim. Facing an almost $400 million shortfall, the Human Service Agency proposed shutting down two drop-in centers for homeless people serving communities of color. Residential treatment programs were going to get slaughtered…public benefits slashed…supportive housing decimated. We expected the closing of after school programs and violence prevention programs galore. This, after years of reductions, meant the breaking point for services poor people depend on for survival.
The Coalition on Homelessness and community members came together to analyze impacts through the Budget Justice Collaborative in our struggle to stave off reductions. Work was done to figure out what reductions could be absorbed without harming poor people. Community and labor worked together to come up with a host of alternative revenue ideas.
Luckily for the destitute of San Francisco, Newsom was gone. Interim Mayor Ed Lee held a community process, and actually listened. He prioritized safety net programs. He asked Fire, Police, and the nurses to give up their raises. The city garnered more sales tax than expected.
By the time the budget came to the Board of Supervisors, there was about $8 million left to come up with to stave off reductions to poor people. In addition, there was about $9 million in other items Board members wanted to fund, from capital projects…to halting privatization of security guards…to new Police Academy class…to trees. A year ago, the Board would have had to make up about $15 million instead. The Board accepted about $11 million in recommendations from Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, who identified wasteful spending. What the Board reduces, the Board can replace with other items. There was some other revenue as well, and it added up pretty well close to balancing out with all parties satisfied.
When it came to the end of the process, however, the consensus building that came out of the Mayor’s Office started to fall apart. Apparently, Chief of Staff Steve Kawa (a holdover from the Newsom years) did not get the memo that this was the new era of getting along. The office insisted, even though they had the funding, that they were going to contract out. This put many Board members in an awkward spot, since they would like to have the future support of labor unions, and would never get it if they contracted out. In the end, even though the Mayor’s Office had funding to cover it all, they still had to cut a bunch of stuff out of the budget. There was a transparent effort to pit the non-profits against the unions. However, since most non-profits are now unionized, this made divisiveness hard to manufacture.
When the budget finally balanced at 3am the morning after the last day of June, there were no cuts to supportive housing, no cuts to job training, after-school programs, nor violence prevention. It would have felt better for everyone involved if political game playing had not occured, but overall, the most vulnerable San Franciscans were protected. There were a lot of community stakeholders that helped make this happen. Supervisor Jane Kim really stepped up and resisted a lot of pressure, and Supervisor Carmen Chu put aside her own personal priorities and tried to work collectively with folks. In the end, we have a city budget that all San Franciscans should be proud of: a budget that has integrity and principles infused throughout, and a budget that–while not perfect from any one perspective–can be, quite simply, named “fair.”