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Letter from California, Part 3

To Tad Friend, c/o The New Yorker

By Betsey Culp

Which brings us to homelessness, and the most puzzling statement in your article: “by my count one recent afternoon, there were thirty-three people living on United Nations Plaza within view of the mayor’s office.” If Newsom had taken out his telescope on that afternoon, he could indeed have seen UN Plaza. On a Thursday, he would have seen the central walkway lined with tents for the weekly flea market. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he could have watched customers — Asians from the nearby Tenderloin, city office workers, tourists — buying produce at the farmers’ market. Off and on during the summer, he would have seen people eating their lunch and listening to a noontime concert.

UN Plaza is public space.

On the afternoon you chose to make your informal survey, Newsom might also have seen some shabbily dressed men and women sitting on the curbs that define the grassy areas in the plaza (the city removed all the benches several years ago to prevent people from sleeping there). Some of them may have had shopping carts. Some of them may even have been homeless. But not one of them was living in the plaza. Every night the Department of Public Works dispatches one of its “big trucks” to hose down the area, making sure that no one plans to camp out there. During the day, a group of men has also taken to gathering on the perimeter of a large monument to California’s settlers that splits the street just west of the plaza. They scatter quickly when a DPW truck arrives at lunchtime, shooting arcs of water over the entire statue to the amusement of diners in the Asian Art Museum café alongside.

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It’s hard to tell, just by looking, whether these people are homeless. Nevertheless, as you suggest, a lot of San Franciscans are. Two years ago a survey conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness came up with a count of 8,600, which homeless advocates dismissed as unrealistically low; San Francisco’s official ten-year “Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness,” released last June, places the figure at 15,000. (The population of San Francisco is about 750,000. To give these numbers a New York perspective, multiply by 10.)

Homeless deaths are also high. The figure of 169 that Newsom quoted to you describes the period from July 2002 to July 2003, but it is not an unusual one. More than 135 homeless people died in the city in 2000, and an average of 110 a year during the period from 1987 to 1998. It was this, combined with pressure from downtown businesses, that prompted Newsom into action while he was a supervisor.

But Newsom’s proposals did not fall into a vacuum. In the spring of 2001 the Local Homeless Coordinating Board released a detailed five-year plan called “Continuum of Care.” The broad-based city organization, which includes representatives from labor and business, nonprofit service providers, and formerly homeless people, put together a comprehensive approach to homelessness that covered everything from better data collection to housing construction. In August ten members of the Board of Supervisors voted to make the plan “the City and County of San Francisco’s official homeless policy document.” The eleventh supervisor, Newsom, was absent. Mayor Willie Brown refused to sign the resolution, arguing that it lacked specific financing provisions.

Almost immediately afterward Newsom began to introduce legislation on the subject. So did several of his colleagues. The Chronicle reported that, between September and February alone, “supervisors introduced 31 pieces of legislation, made 17 requests to the city attorney for help drafting legislation and made 41 additional requests for information on homeless issues from city departments.”

It’s hard now to imagine the atmosphere they were working in. District elections had brought to the Board of Supervisors a progressive majority determined to find solutions to the problem. But San Francisco’s tourist-based economy had also sprung a giant leak after 9/11. Hotels and restaurants lay empty. Spin-off sectors like the arts were gasping for air. Business leaders, grasping every possible lifeline, demanded cleaner, less intimidating streets — and cleaner, less intimidating people on them.

As you say, the issue polarized the city. It polarized the Board of Supervisors as well. Newsom’s farthest-reaching proposal — to cut welfare payments in exchange for services — failed at the Board. It probably would have even if it had been more liberally constructed, for Newsom was too closely identified with Willie Brown to get much support. He told me, rather plaintively, that he had tried hard to bridge the gap, going out for coffee or a beer with his fellow supervisors again and again, to no avail.

And so he took his plan to the people, in the form of Ballot Proposition N. In October 2002, just in time for the election, a new civic group called SFSOS arrived on the scene, led by investment banker Warren Hellman, Gap founder Don Fisher, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Its mission: to improve the quality of life in the city. Its first challenge: to deliver a victory for Care Not Cash. In November Proposition N won by 60 percent.

The subsequent path of the measure has been decidedly bumpy, with court challenges, alterations by the Board of Supervisors, and ultimately re-institution by the courts.

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Today, in many ways, history has passed it by.

Care Not Cash is essentially welfare reform; it affects the 3,000 people on welfare in San Francisco who are homeless. Over the past two years the city’s approach has changed, and its thrust — as seen in the newly released ten-year plan — is now in the direction of help for its 3,000 “hard-core” homeless, many of whom do not receive General Assistance.

In addition, contrary to the description in the New Yorker, the program does not require recipients to exchange their cash benefits for space in “specialized single-room-occupancy hotels, where they would receive in-house jobs and addiction counseling.” Prop. N is less humane, replacing cash subsidies with either long-term supportive housing in an SRO or a bed for the night in a shelter. While Proposition N was in limbo, the supervisors passed a resolution introduced by Chris Daly specifying that actual housing must be available for the program to kick in. Daly’s plan was superseded when the courts upheld Care Not Cash last April, but popular support remains for the philosophy behind it.

The new emphasis has led to a new political approach as well. On this November’s ballot is a $200 million bond measure, a carefully negotiated housing plan that includes $90 million for supportive housing. In an election that includes several tax increases, it may be difficult to obtain the two-thirds vote needed for passage. Aside from an enthusiastic appearance on the steps of City Hall to kick off the campaign for the proposition, Newsom has been amazingly quiet on the subject. So has SFSOS.


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