California and National Elections

S.F. Votes on Competing Plans for Homeless

By Benjamin Temchine
November 6, 2002 01:17 AM

SAN FRANCISCO -- Residents voted Tuesday to do what their elected officials could not: radically change the city's welfare programs to deal with the gnawing problem of chronic homelessness. Updated Nov. 6, 1:17 am

Measure N, known as Care Not Cash, would slash cash payments to the homeless-- which average $375 a month -- to $59 and use the money for programs that provide housing, food, and drug and alcohol treatment.

Gatherings are common outside of General Assistance at 1235 Mission Street, where the homeless and low income residents in San Fransico receive cash payments. The Care Not Cash initiative proposes reducing monthly checks for the homeless from up to $395 to $59 while increasing treatment, housing, and job training.
Measure N rode a wave of public frustration over politicians' inability to solve the growing problem of homelessness. By the city estimates, the percentage of homeless aid recipients increased 17 percent in the last year.

"The city is ready to grow up," said Supervisor Gavin Newsom, a sponsor of the measure. "This is a dramatic change in thinking about how to solve homelessness."

A competing measure, authored by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, that would have restricted the city's ability to reduce cash payments, was defeated at the polls by a narrow margin.

The competition between the measures was seen as an early test of the political clout of Newsom and Ammiano who are expected to run for mayor next year. This is the first citywide election with Newsom and Ammiano featured so prominently on opposing sides.

Poll after poll showed that city residents considered homelessness the most serious problem that the city faces. Some early voters said yesterday that it was Measure N that brought them to the polls.

"I didn't even vote for governor," said Mike Crosetti of Bernal Heights. "Homelessness was the most important issue for me."

Crosetti said he was opposed to Measure O.

"It was purely a political move by Ammiano." Crosetti said. "It turned me off from the start."

Leah Dible, a psychotherapist, felt just as strongly but came to a different conclusion.

"I am unconvinced that if the city took away this pittance they would be able to provide better services." she said.

"It would've been better if all the millions of dollars spent on the homeless issue had gone to the homeless instead," said Dible, who said city officials should have taken care of this issue long ago.

The last three mayors -- Art Agnos, Frank Jordan and Willie Brown -- tried and failed, according to UC Berkeley politics Professor Bruce Cain.

Life on the streets of San Francisco.
"It brought down Agnos, put Jordan in office and Willie Brown is powerless against the advocacy groups." Cain said in a recent interview. "They have developed a political machine that rivals the Democratic Party."

Cain said Newsom was unable to get his legislation through the Board of Supervisors because of the opposition of advocacy groups that contract with the city to provide housing and food to the homeless.

By going outside the normal legislative process to reform the way the city deals with the homeless, Newsom may have found a way to bypass the advocacy groups, but Cain said the victory may be temporary.

Advocacy groups have a "political machine that rivals the Democrats," said Cain. "They will still be there tomorrow."

The measure takes effect next July. Newsom says that over the next nine months, the city will set up the new system for homeless benefits.

As required by federal law, the city will use computers to track open shelter beds, or rooms in city-run single room hotels, Newsom said. As people are moved into, or offered, transitional and permanent housing, their checks would be reduced to $59, he said.

"The city spends $104 million annually on services to the homeless' said Newsom, "We know which services work, and we should increase funding for them."