Homeless are city's new symbol

Mayor: Homeless are city's new symbol
Newsom outlines progress on issue in State of the City address

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who built his political career on a promise to solve San Francisco's homelessness problem, said Thursday the city is moving in the right direction but still has far to go to shake its troubling image.

"Homelessness has replaced the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable car as one of the city's most defining symbols. It's the one thing that every San Franciscan can agree on: Homelessness is the problem,'' Newsom said during his first State of the City address.

But, he said, he is moving forward with his voter-approved Care Not Cash plan that cuts welfare checks to the homeless in favor of housing linked to rehabilitation and other social services. The city, he said, already has created 768 of these new supportive housing units.

He also touted a new initiative to conduct intensive outreach to the homeless with the goal of placing them into existing programs.

"Where others were defeated, we were determined, and now that determination is saving lives,'' Newsom said.

That bold assertion has yet to be independently verified, but it signals the optimism that Newsom wove through his 50-minute address delivered in a packed auditorium at Mission High School.

"By every measure, we are making progress in San Francisco,'' the mayor declared, but he quickly added, "While we are moving in the right direction, challenges remain.''

Finding jobs for the jobless, providing housing for the poor, securing alternatives to incarceration for youngsters in trouble with the law, creating new opportunities for businesses to set up shop in San Francisco, sprucing up the parks, cleaning the streets, offering health care to the uninsured and making government more customer-friendly were just some of the challenges the mayor highlighted.

Newsom used his speech to lay out his vision for San Francisco during the final three years of his term, and to reach beyond the city boundaries to build his Democratic Party credentials with his sharp rebuke of what he described as the "failed leadership at the state and federal levels.''

He faulted President Bush, directly and indirectly, for everything from cutting funding for street cops and affordable housing to not fighting hard enough to extend the national ban on assault weapons.

"Cities like San Francisco have become America's first responders in almost every category, forced to create the solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing Americans today,'' said the 37-year-old mayor, who took over the office in January.

He moved the speech out of City Hall, the traditional venue used by past mayors for the annual "State of the City'' address in a symbolic gesture to bring the government to the people. And, unlike his predecessors, he used a teleprompter, which kept him squarely on a carefully crafted message.

All in all, the audience, comprised largely of elected officials, department heads, city commissioners and select leaders from the business, labor and nonprofit organizations, were highly receptive to the mayor's remarks. He got the biggest applause for his oblique reference to sanctioning gay marriage in San Francisco earlier this year -- "When confronted with injustice, we had the courage to take a stand for equality'' -- and his promise to enact a system so callers to city agencies, whether wanting to find out about dog licenses or to report graffiti vandalism -- call just one number: 3-1-1.

He also used the forum to campaign for three measures on the Nov. 2 ballot: Proposition A, a $200 million affordable housing bond; Proposition J, which would raise the sales tax in the city to 8.75 percent; and Proposition K, a plan to raise the business tax.

His speech covered a wide range of topics, from the environment to emergency preparedness, but focused extensively on efforts to improve the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

Newsom called for sustained and coordinated initiatives by the government, nonprofits, the business community, charities and organized labor to bring economic revitalization and increased public safety to the city's impoverished and violence-plagued southeastern neighborhoods -- Bayview, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Visitacion Valley.

"Despite over 40 years of promises, programs, speeches, high rhetoric and good intentions, economic and social conditions are getting worse, not better, '' he said.

Community organizer Sharen Hewitt, who works with victims of crime and their families, wanted to hear more detailed plans from the mayor.

"We've had 77 homicides this year in San Francisco. We need more than broad promises,'' she said.

Indeed, Newsom laid out ambitious proposals -- broad in concept, short on specifics -- for what he would like San Francisco to accomplish during his watch.

He wants to create a task force with representatives from the judiciary, the public defender, the district attorney and City Hall to develop a plan "to ensure that none of San Francisco's children will be sent to the CYA (the California Youth Authority's lockup for juvenile offenders)."

He also called for the creation of a local program that mirrors the federal HOPE VI initiative, in which federal grants were used to rebuild public housing projects. The Bush administration has cut funding to the program, which San Francisco utilized to redevelop rundown developments in Hunters Point, the Mission, Hayes Valley and North Beach.

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  • Homelessness