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Friday, July 19, 2002

The Play’s the Thing

Care-Not-Cash meets the Coalition on Homelessness, and no one wins

By Betsey Culp

Yesterday evening was cold. Even the hookers stationed on Folsom were bundled up, and out on the avenues a cold wind was blowing in from the ocean. As I drove down Taraval, a wedge of seven cops-on-motorcycles passed me and I knew that the curtain was about to go up on the latest scene in the city’s ongoing political drama.

Even the most tuned-out San Franciscan knows that Supervisor Gavin Newsom is sponsoring a ballot measure called The Care Not Cash Initiative, designed to “provide all homeless San Franciscans without dependents, who qualify for aid through the County Assistance Programs, food, shelter/housing and health services replacing the majority of existing cash grants with these guaranteed services.” In Act I, staged a couple of weeks ago, the District 2 supe and his troops fanned out across the city a couple and gathered 23,000 signatures to place the proposal on the November ballot. In the present Interlude before Act II, when the official campaign begins in August, Newsom has been busily raising popular consciousness and money. One scene played out last night, outside the office of Cal Insurance & Associates, on Taraval at 33rd Avenue.

Inside the low-slung building, representatives of the business community gathered for a fundraiser. Business must be better than the media have let on, because these were a well-fed lot, substantial of flesh and broad of beam. Outside, the Designated Opponents of the measure marched back and forth, chanting in English and Spanish. They were decidedly less well fed and wearing outfits that would have made Our Mayor cringe. All around the edges, on every corner, along the sidewalk, and less conspicuously on each surrounding side street, were SFPD officers and their vehicles. Just waiting.

But this confrontation was ceremonial, as all parties well knew. The goal on both sides was not to convince, but to attract attention. Not a bad goal: that’s the beginning of a successful election campaign. Each side hyped its message a little. A demonstrator with a microphone thanked the group for gathering on “such short notice,” when in fact the word had gone out last week. (On July 12 the Call posted notices of both the fund raiser and the demo in its Calendar.) Frank Gallagher, an unabashed proponent of the initiative, who was highly visible at the event, wrote later in an Examiner news story that the protesters mobbed Newsom when he appeared and “ultimately, police had to escort him into the building.” Not quite. The supervisor walked by himself across the street and through the gathering of police and demonstrators. There were officers standing in the doorway. Perhaps they escorted him inside.

This play is part of an old old San Francisco story, retold and re-embroidered over many decades: The Nice People meet the Disreputables. The Good Folk meet the Riffraff. It makes wonderful copy.

In an earlier incident, in August 1864, a hotshot reporter named Sam Clemens covered a meeting of the Second Ward Democratic Club during another election campaign. Clemens’s paper, the Daily Morning Call, supported the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats did not. It was probably a rather dull meeting, but here’s how a master scene-setter transformed it:

Last evening some fifty persons, perhaps, chiefly of the Copperhead persuasion, assembled in the “Democratic Club Room” on the corner of Stockton and Filbert streets, for the purpose of effervescing a little. “Conservative Democratic” imaginations pictured it a grand rally of persecuted and hunted down patriots. A rational person saw nothing there but aberrated beings, hugging the bugbear of martyrdom and iterating the formula laid down by the secret agents of Jeff. Davis’ Government.

You can imagine what the Democratic press, if it survived in those wartorn days, made of the meeting.

All’s fair in love, war, and American politics, and yesterday’s scene is sure to be played out again, and again, and again, in the coming months. The re-runs will get the public’s attention, if not in the media, then among the people whose neighborhoods form their setting. A little group of four men gathered across the street from the insurance office, a Greek chorus quietly discussing the proposal and other related city issues. One announced, with an edge to his voice, “We’d better give them their drug money, because otherwise they’ll kill your wives and mothers for it.” But when another suggested that not all homeless people were drug addicts and that life on the streets was pretty harsh, the first began to soften his hostility, recalling that he’d seen drunken yuppies urinating on the streets more often than homeless men and women.

The re-runs will provide a kind of PR that neither side can buy. In November, no one in San Francisco will be unaware that Care Not Cash is appearing on the ballot. And when the curtain falls on November 5, the initiative may even have passed. But – particularly if the economy continues to stumble – will it actually do much good? Or will it be yet another band-aid on a festering sore? Worse, will its creation-by-confrontation heighten the inter-class tensions that are already rumbling through our city’s neighborhoods, so that a cure is even harder to achieve?

Gavin Newsom has outlined his proposal in a Chronicle op-ed piece. (For the record, months ago, when the initiative was merely a gleam in the good supervisor’s eye, the Call offered him space to answer his critics, in an attempt to start a thoughtful discussion. Newsom declined, feeling either that our readers had already made up their minds or that our limited circulation wasn’t worth the effort.)

The Coalition on Homelessness and other opponents of the initiative accuse Newsom of lying, of pretending that the cash which formerly went to homeless people will be used for services when in fact there is no guarantee that it will. The problem they see is the use of the nonbinding word “may,” as in the following provisions (emphasis added):

(h) To promote the transition of General Assistance recipients to gainful employment, the Executive Director of the Department of Human Services may establish an Earned Income and Asset Disregard Program for the recipients who are employed.

Sec. 20.60.12. Funding. A baseline appropriation for housing and related services provided as in-kind aid shall be established using the City and County of San Francisco FY 2002-2003 Annual Appropriation Ordinance and any supplemental appropriations for the amount of cash aid payments to applicants and recipients who declare themselves to be homeless.… This funding may be used to support, but shall not be limited to, some or all of the following: hotel master lease programs, permanent supportive housing, improvements of conditions in existing shelters, expansion of shelter capacity, mental health and substance abuse treatment, outreach, a fund for rental deposits, SSI advocacy programs, rep-payee services, case management and meals for the homeless population through direct services and/or contracts.

When will the city's playgoers leave the theater and demand their money back?