In honor of Gavin Newsom’s exploratory campaign for governor I’ve decided to try and figure out what he’s been worth as mayor. Frankly I’ve no real clue what the guy does all day but he’s a few high-profile moments. The first time Gavin percolated into the public consciousness was as he was just starting out in politics.
Way back in 2004 Gavin Newsom was just another City Supervisor overseeing the rough and tumble Marina district, a neighborhood which he had invested heavily in as owner of some boutique wine shops. Having aspirations for the throne, warmed by Willie Brown’s sharply-dressed touche, he threw his hat in the ring by proposing drastic changes to the way that San Francisco provided services to the homeless. His proposal received the Hallmark moniker of Care Not Cash and the basic premise seemed painfully simple: instead of issuing cash grants to people on the city dole why not provide housing and various health services? On the surface it’s so common sense, tackling vagrancy by giving vagrants a place to live, but the mechanisms behind the ballot measure were not so simple.
Politics played a large role in the creation of Care Not Cash, both on the local and Federal levels. San Francisco has always had a large homeless population and various mayors had attempted to deal with this in various ways. Art Agnos decided to let the homeless camp unmolested on the lawn of City Hall and the adjacent park figuring that we shouldn’t hide a problem we couldn’t fix. Frank Jordan, a former lawman, sent squads of police out into the city to roust camps and move the undesirables along to less desirable districts. Neither predecessor to Willie Brown had any sort of measurable impact on the population; in fact the numbers continued to climb. As San Francisco, always a tourist destination, saw business shift further from light industrial to service and as an influx of proto-dotcom assholes began to migrate into town the eyesore of panhandlers and drug-addled lunatics began to be perceived as a political threat; after the internet bubble burst and the stock market took hit after hit, the pressure to stave off the less attractive city landmarks grew. Meanwhile President Bush’s homeless policy was threatening aid cuts to cities who were not changing policies to represent an emphasis on housing before all other services.
Care Not Cash passed, Newsom was elected mayor, and over the course of several months existing human services programs for city-plan recipients transitioned into the new way of being homeless. Essentially what changed was that the monthly stipend (a maximum of $342 for people on GA, $422 for people on PAES [a Welfare to Work program], SSIP [a placeholder program for people trying to qualify for SSI] & CALM [a program which provides for elderly or disabled immigrants who are on Medi-Cal but unable to claim Social Security benefits]) would be reduced to $59 and vouchers unless the person signed up for Care Not Cash wherein they would still only get a monthly stipend of $59 but they would have a house and benefits. The thinking was that the money not handed out, in addition to grants from HUD now that San Francisco had met federal requirements for funding, could provide the amenities instead of watching the cash disappear into whatever recipients were buying.
Housing would have to be purloined and the McKinney-Vento Act‘s provisions for allowing Federal property to be used for homeless programs would not suffice for the nearly 3,000 eligible for the program. The city invested money in vacant SRO units where they planned to house people, creating suite-like settings with in-house service providers. To help pay for this the city also began to divert funds from various outreach programs figuring that people would transition and have the same needs met. Unfortunately this meant that programs previously open to recipients of other aid not provided by the city, or people just shy of being, or people who were temporarily, homeless were closing shop. These people, mind you, are also finding the reserve of cheap SRO housing being gobbled up by a city service which they cannot benefit from.
In April of last year the City Comptroller issued an audit of Care Not Cash and the results were heralded as a success. The amount of cash stipends issued had fallen from over 2,600 to 642 and 2,127 people had been given their own housing. It looks good at first and proponents of the program suggest that one thing which is undeniable is that people who were taking the handout without any intention of becoming productive, housed citizens have fallen off the payroll. Okay, parasites gone, but as C.W. Nevius noted in his column from July of last year the city is spending six times the amount it did in the mid-90’s per year. One of the ideas of Care Not Cash was that it would reduce the homeless population by making them not homeless and thus spending on the homeless would fall. However, as Benjamin Wachs points out, the shitty single rooms provided by the city has seen their rent jump 20% since the program was implemented; Wachs adds that census figures suggest the rest of housing in the city has raised 8% in that same period. Landlords have been gouging the government for Section 8 units since time began and Care Not Cash seems to have opened up a whole new pair of pursestrings.
The amount of housing has remained stagnant since August 2006 which means that people who are enrolled in Care Not Cash remain in shelters set aside to make up for the shortcoming. If shelter beds are not free then people are issued a full monthly stipend of several hundred dollars. This means that there are still a lot of people eligible for housing who remain homeless waiting for a vacancy. The turnover of housing doesn’t seem particularly high nor is it clear what exactly is expected of people housed under Care Not Cash. There are programs available to them, but it seems that many still hit the streets during the day panhandling and pursuing other time-honored homeless activities. Not everyone who’s homeless is insane or addicted to drugs or mentally disabled but it doesn’t appear that anyone knows how to help those who are transition from the vagrant life to a gainfully employed suit and tie life.
Every year the city has a very unscientific count of the homeless population and it continues to grow. People come and go for whatever reasons and some eventually die. It’s important to remember that a small percentage of the city’s entire homeless population is even eligible for Care Not Cash– anyone receiving Federal benefits are excluded. As the city has closed its doors to all but the select few, as programs to help the marginal residents shrink or are diverted to provide for a select few and as the shittiest rooms in town have been set aside at a premium for a select few, there seems to be less opportunity for the majority of San Francisco’s indigent community. But the city isn’t handing out as much cash which could be used for booze or drugs so it’s all good, right? The last time Care Not Cash hit the papers it was because a Berkeley non-profit, Disability Rights Advocates, sued the city on behalf of disabled homeless who were refused empty shelter beds which had been set aside solely for Care Not Cash recipients who had yet to be placed in housing.
Top photo courtesy of the city’s Care Not Cash site; bottom photo by Roshani Dhungana of the San Francisco Sentinel. Some of the figures I used were taken from monthly statistical reports issued by San Francisco’s Department of Human Services.