Homeless disconnect

Newsom's programs offer the same services nonprofits offer every day - but his are dished out in front of TV cameras

On a recent Saturday afternoon Angela Alioto, the head of the city's Homeless Ten-Year Plan Council, was bubbling over about San Francisco's efforts to end homelessness. "It's working!" she enthused. "Direct Access to Housing is working. The outreach is absolutely working. All of the housing in the last nine to ten months - it's working."

Her guide was the lack of visibility of the homeless, particularly in the downtown corridor. On a drive through the city, she said, there are far fewer street dwellers on the sidewalks than there were a year ago: "Don't you see the difference?"

What Alioto is talking about is noticeable. There has been a shift in the visibility of the homeless. But there's also this: a year into implementation of Mayor Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash homeless welfare program, some neighborhoods like the Mission District are overflowing with homeless people, according to service providers and residents.

Now, I hate to be the constant cynic, but after a year of San Francisco Chronicle headlines that have praised the mayor's efforts - and after several years of covering the issue for the Bay Guardian - I sometimes feel like I must be living in some alternate reality. It's wonderful that nearly 1,000 formerly homeless people now have shelter. They're living in city-leased supportive housing complexes, partly funded by Care Not Cash. And it's great that Project Homeless Connect has hundreds of people taking time out to help the poor.

But there's more to this story; it's partly about politics and it's partly about money. How was that housing funded? How does the city plan to fund the rest of its promised stock of supportive housing for the homeless? And why, when lots of people are getting housing, are there more homeless people in certain parts of town?

Outreach versus outreach
The short answer is that San Francisco is funding this housing by cutting other homeless programs. That was the fundamental premise of Care Not Cash: cut a program that gives cash aid to homeless people in favor of housing and take money from one group of people to house another (see "Shelter Shuffle," 4/02/03). The same principle guides new policy decisions on how to apportion federal homeless funds.

In the past few weeks, while working on the annual proposal for dollars under the federal McKinney Act, city officials pushed for a vote that would cut legal advocacy, medical detox, and job training and increase supportive housing. It was a choice made by the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, but was essentially controlled by officials who had already made the decision.

Former San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness head Paul Boden followed the vote. He and others charge that city officials cut service providers out of the decision making. The result: if the feds like the proposal, it's likely between $2 and $3 million will be redirected from services to supportive housing.

"They're saying everything's going great because they had all these meetings," to gather public input, Boden told us. "But then they ignored us - and they hold all the votes. We call that a process fuck."

Boden has been advocating for supportive housing for years and was part of the group that helped create the Community Housing Partnership, a successful supportive housing agency. But, he said, he doesn't want to lose needed services all at once: "When you keep robbing Peter to pay Paul, eventually Peter's going to need some housing."

This latest money shuffle is happening even as Newsom promotes his Project Homeless Connect, the mostly volunteer gathering that tries to connect homeless people with services. The event has drawn significant praise for the mayor, as the media lap up the images of people working together. But PHC depends on the viability of mental health services, job training, and health care - some of the same services slated for cuts.

The April 21 PHC event offered an amazing array of services for the more than 1,000 homeless who showed up, from legal aid to wheelchair repair to a chance to get their feet washed by Newsom himself. Still, for each grateful client featured in glowing media accounts, there were people like Kenneth Williams and Ronnie Nelson, who told us they have been on waiting lists for months trying to get the help they need.

A half-dozen people we interviewed said they already knew where to get in line for services and housing, but word on the street was that this event was the bonanza that could help people cut to the front of the line. Indeed, there were services offered at the event that aren't usually available. But what typically happens is that housing is set aside specifically for the day of PHC - even though there are thousands looking for homes on a daily basis. Department of Human Services director Trent Rhorer told us 26 of the 58 city-funded stabilization beds (which include supportive services) created last year were kept vacant for PHC attendees.

It's not that it's bad to have housing ready to offer people encountered during outreach. It's just that it's deceptive to provide it mostly when the mayor's there with TV cameras, rather than giving it out as soon as it's available to those in need.

Another 50 housing slots were created for the event by private donations that will fund them for three months, after which Rhorer said Newsom plans to include them in his city budget. Without new funding streams, this cash will have to come from some other program, most likely from the social and health services for poor people that Newsom tried to carve out of last year's budget, only to back off in the face of protests.

PHC's biggest success might be in getting an embittered public to care about their homeless neighbors. But as a practical matter, it's not clear these events are more helpful to the homeless than the daily outreach efforts of hundreds of nonprofit workers.

Emille Huriaux of the Women's Community Clinic notes that 1,000 people a day use various city drop-in centers that do the same work as the highly publicized PHC, which serves that same number one day a month. And the day-to-day outreach workers are finding they have dwindling resources to offer, partly because those resources have been transferred to the mayor's signature programs.

"Project Homeless Connect is predicated on the notion that services are available," Huriaux said at a hearing before the Board of Supervisors' City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, convened April 18 by Sup. Chris Daly. "It needs to benefit homeless people, not just make us feel good about ourselves for helping for a day."

Housing first?
Rhorer contends the city is simply doing its best to comply with new Housing and Urban Development Department requirements, which demand that cities prioritize housing in their anti-homelessness work. Paradoxically, the feds are also making some potentially devastating cuts to housing dollars. Section 8 vouchers, public housing money, and community-development funds are all on the chopping block.

San Francisco Housing Authority director Greg Fortner is working with the Bay Area congressional delegation to stem the tide of cuts, and Matt Franklin of the Mayor's Office on Housing said he's asking landlords who rent to Section 8 clients to lower their rents, but it's unclear how widespread or successful this effort will be.

For clients of these programs that's little comfort. One Section 8 user named Mary (who asked us not to use her last name to protect her privacy) said she lives in a studio in the Tenderloin's Jordan Apartments. Eleven years ago Mary was homeless but managed to connect with Social Security benefits and eventually landed a Section 8 voucher to help subsidize her rent. Over the years the portion of the rent that she's expected to pay has risen from about $160 to $560. Now, under just one of the rule changes that's going to affect Section 8 tenants, her portion of the rent is shooting up to $800, which she says is nearly 50 percent of her income.

Some 7,000 San Franciscans depend on Section 8 vouchers to make their rent, and another 25,000 are on the waiting list. Rent hikes of up to $600 are already starting to hit as many as 4,800 of them.

It's these and other cuts that advocates for the poor have been pointing to as Bush's homeless czar Philip Mangano presses cities to turn to "housing first." Mangano, with his preacherlike vibe, helps his boss offer "housing first" with one hand while drastically cutting long-held programs that prevent homelessness with the other. Locally, Newsom and Alioto (and the Chron) have embraced Mangano and his policies.

These are the federal pressures that Rhorer says drive his policy choices. "The homeless advocates would really be screaming if we lost $17.5 million because our [McKinney] application didn't score high enough," he said.

He does have a point: the cuts to other housing programs will be severe. The San Francisco Housing Authority estimates it will lose a minimum of $10.2 million next year under the current Bush budget proposal.

Still, critics insist the way the city is carrying out HUD's bidding is unnecessary, and they argue for a more incremental approach to shifting budget priorities.

This is key. The city may have federal pressures to deal with, but perhaps it doesn't have to move ahead the way it has: by removing SRO hotels (where poor people live) from the open market and placing homeless people in them to great media fanfare, by charging the homeless for electricity when they sleep on a mat on a shelter floor under the auspices of Care Not Cash, and by setting aside services for homeless people who make contact with the mayor's outreach workers rather than any of the dozens of other outreach workers who are out in the streets every single day.

Additional reporting by Yenie Ra.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at

  • Homelessness