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Homeless coalition facing homelessness: Local advocacy group struggles to keep afloat amid changing policy landscape

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness - an agency whose policy and program decisions are made by homeless and formerly homeless people - faces what could be the most severe funding shortage in its 17-year history. Without a significant increase in new money over the next couple of months, the group risks losing its offices for lack of rent.

The strained financial situation for the group comes as homeless coalitions nationwide face tight budgets, according to Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. Whitehead told the Bay Guardian that under the Bush administration funds have been especially scarce for overtly political organizations.

"During this administration, support for groups that are more advocacy-based groups and groups that have poor or homeless in their leadership has gone down," Whitehead said.

The effect on the local coalition - which is best known for its in-your-face direct action and vocal legislative advocacy but which has also founded direct service programs - has been dramatic. In early June the group laid off all of its 13 paid staffers and has been running on volunteer time, with shortened hours, according to executive director Paul Boden. Circulation of the Street Sheet, the newspaper put out by the group and sold by homeless people, has been reduced.

Boden, who was laid off with the rest of his staff, said the group needs about $100,000 to bring its employees back to paid status by the end of the year.

Part of the problem the organization faces is common to most nonprofits. After 9/11 many foundation investments lost money, leaving a very thin funding pool available, with no less need. But there's possibly a lot more to it.

One challenge is a systemic problem among left-leaning foundations. A study released earlier this year by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows that conservative funders are more effective than liberal or left-wing foundations in advancing their policy agenda by giving to groups in a sustained way.

What could be hitting the homeless coalitions in particular, by Whitehead's analysis, is that funders have been influenced by the emphasis the Bush administration's homeless czar, Philip Mangano, has placed on supportive housing and ending "chronic homelessness" - a notion that's been embraced by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

"The president's plan talks about ending chronic homelessness but cuts the Section 8 program," he said. "The organizations that are experiencing financial difficulties are the organizations that oppose it." While Mangano is promoting an increase in supportive housing funds, he's on record as endorsing deep cuts in the federal Section 8 program, which subsidizes rents for low-income people.

But Whitehead supports a comprehensive approach to ending homelessness, which emphasizes affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and broad-based social change. That's the same approach taken by the local coalition, which has created a public relations problem for the group: comprehensive social change is hard to fit into a sound bite, and it's tough to compete with well-tailored, poll-driven nuggets like "care not cash.

And over the years - as the coalition has fought with mayor after mayor over policy decisions - it has been portrayed as stalling and angry, coalition board member Alissa Riker said.

Riker, who directs jail services for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said this is especially a factor in the public perception of fights over "quality of life" crimes (like sleeping outside or pissing in the bushes).

"The jail is the most expensive and inappropriate homeless shelter that San Francisco has," Riker said. "The coalition is continually fighting the enforcement and prosecution of quality-of-life offenses, and in their opposition to these efforts, they're portrayed as if they're advocating for people to die on the streets. In reality they've been advocating for years for treatment."

Community Housing Partnership director Jeff Kosinsky has a similar analysis: "They've gotten in the past a really bad rap as maniacal advocates that don't accomplish much. Yet the coalition has helped form an amazing number of organizations." Among them is Kosinsky's organization, a supportive housing program - like the ones Newsom is lauding - that serves more than 500 people.

The coalition was also instrumental in the creation of the city's homeless death prevention team, several homeless shelters, a substance abuse program for African American women, and the city's shelter grievance program. And when its members aren't using direct action to make a point (as they did this week to push for compromise on the housing bond), they're often helping people in concrete ways.

Earlier this year the group worked with the San Francisco Housing Authority to rehabilitate about 100 vacant public housing units for homeless people. Coalition members are also key players in affordable-housing policy work, including the effort to use surplus city land for housing.

And though they're often in the position of strongly disagreeing with those in power about how to help the homeless without infringing on civil rights, they continue to participate in the city process.

Kosinsky puts it this way: "The mayor has gone down a certain road with how he wants to deal with the homeless, and the coalition has been working closely with him to protect the rights of homeless people. They're big enough to work with people they've fought with bitterly for years."

Those interested in donating should mail checks payable to the Coalition on Homelessness, 468 Turk St., S.F., CA 94102, or call (415) 346-3740 to pay by credit card.

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