Letter from California, Part 3
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
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