San Francisco Rethinks Cash Aid to Homeless
As other cities slashed cash payments to their homeless populations in recent years, San Francisco held out, living up to its national image as a city of compassion and tolerance.
But buffeted by the dot-com collapse and other economic woes, many San Franciscans today see themselves as America’s last soft touch. Some say the city’s reputation for generosity has made it a magnet for street dwellers, whose numbers fluctuate between 7,000 and 10,000. Tourism promoters complain that aggressive panhandlers are driving visitors away.
Recent public opinion polls show that a large majority of city residents favor a proposal on the fall ballot that would slash homeless general assistance payments to roughly one-fifth of what they are today.
Cities and states have been making payments to homeless people since the early 1980s, when their numbers began to rise dramatically. After the Clinton administration in 1996 started emphasizing housing and job training over such direct payments, many cities followed suit.
San Francisco voters list homelessness as by far the most serious problem facing the city. Two leading candidates for next year’s mayoral election are sponsoring November initiatives to address the homelessness issue.
Attracting the most attention is an initiative proposed by San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom that would drastically reduce payments to single homeless adults. His measure--called Care Not Cash--would trim one of the country’s most generous stipends from $320 a month to $59, and replace the cash with the promise of equivalent spending on housing and services.
In contrast, Los Angeles County, with the state’s largest homeless caseload, currently dispenses $221 a month in general relief to individuals but limits the payments to eight months a year and imposes additional restrictions.
Most other counties, required by state law to provide support to the indigent, give out much less cash than San Francisco.
Supported by the city’s business establishment and struggling tourism industry, Newsom, a Democrat who leads the polls among early mayoral favorites, argues that the flow of cash to a population wracked by drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness does more harm than good.
“We need to redefine our definition of compassion,” said Newsom, who contends that the government is contributing to the city’s alarming death rate among homeless people by supporting self-destructive habits.
Dr. Pablo Stewart, director of psychiatric services at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, agreed, saying: “It is not only clinically incorrect but almost sadistic to give money on a regular basis to people who have a demonstrated inability to handle cash funds.”
The Care Not Cash proposal has sparked a firestorm of protest among homeless rights groups, who see the effort as an attempt to do in San Francisco what New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani did in his much-publicized cleanup of Times Square, which rid much of the area of homeless people, partly by banning sidewalk bivouacs and expanding city-run shelters.
Accusing Newsom of trying to “Giuliani-ize” San Francisco, homeless advocate Paul Bodin contended that the main intent of the Care Not Cash movement is to make homeless people disappear from the streets.
Plan Called ‘Heartless’
“The Newsom plan is heartless, ruthless and basically immoral,” said Sister Bernie Galvin, a Roman Catholic nun who directs the Religious Witness With Homeless People advocacy group here.
Each summer, the 69-year-old Galvin, an Oklahoma native who came to San Francisco after working as a labor organizer and social activist in North Carolina and Texas, stages a memorial service for homeless people who die on city streets. In 1999, the count reached 169. Over the last 15 years, 1,843 homeless people have died on the streets, Galvin said.
Newsom, a 34-year-old restaurateur, argues that the high mortality rate is precisely the reason to cut cash payments.
“In nearly half these cases,” Newsom wrote in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “the cause of death was an overdose of drugs or alcohol. This is the cost of our failure: a toll of drugs, alcohol and death that is the shame of San Francisco.”
Protests by homeless advocacy groups, including the militant People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), have thwarted several of Newsom’s public appearances, forcing the supervisor to leave under police escort.
But his stand on the issue has also won Newsom widespread support.
Nearly 75% of San Francisco voters favor his Care Not Cash initiative, according to a July survey conducted by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates for the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
The same poll showed Newsom, with 36% support, leading his closest two potential rivals, Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, with 23%, and state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, with 6%.
Ammiano drafted a last-minute homeless initiative of his own for the November ballot, saying: “People no longer want the status quo.”
This is not the first time homelessness has emerged as a key issue in a mayoral contest.
Art Agnos, mayor from 1987 to 1991, lost his bid for a second term to former police chief Frank Jordan, who hammered Agnos for opening up San Francisco’s Civic Center Square to several hundred homeless squatters in what was then dubbed “Camp Agnos.”
But Jordan got caught in the backlash against his crackdown on homelessness in 1995 when he ran for reelection against the current mayor, Willie Brown. Barred by the city’s term limits law from running again, Brown has skirted the homelessness issue, letting Newsom and other politicians take the lead.
‘Mother’s Day’ Largess
The city’s homeless population is most in evidence the first and 15th day of each month, known here as “Mother’s Day,” when assistance checks are handed out by a local chain of all-night check-cashing and payday loan outlets under a contract with the city.
On the eve of the most recent payday, the line of homeless men started forming before midnight in front of the Money Mark check-cashing shop in the Tenderloin District, San Francisco’s skid row.
Across the street, orange-vested city work crews blasted the sidewalks with high pressure hoses to remove human waste and trash left by squatters at United Nations Plaza.
San Francisco Police Officer Scott Korte was on Market Street issuing a citation to a man for urinating in a public place. “Two blocks away is the main drug dealing area,” Korte said. “Sometimes the dealers just stand outside the door. It always gets busier here payday.”
Citing studies by the Rand Corp., Haight-Ashbury clinic psychiatrist Stewart estimates that 60% to 75% of homeless people receiving general assistance have some history of substance abuse. He estimates that 30% to 50% of homeless people suffer from mental illness.
One of the men standing in line at the Money Mark was 37-year-old Paul James Salks, an ex-Marine.
Relatives of Salks, who were contacted by The Times, said he was student body president of his North Carolina high school before falling into a pattern of alcoholism that exacerbated a history of mental illness. Both of his parents also are homeless, said brother David Salks, a civil engineer in Charlotte, N.C.
After cashing his general assistance check, Salks, clearly drunk and wobbly on his feet, said he planned to use the money to travel to Seattle to investigate the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill off the coast of Alaska.
But before he even made it to the street, a wad of new bills dangling from his clenched fist, Salks got into an argument with a drug dealer over a glass crack pipe he wanted to buy. The dispute ended when Salks passed out $20 bills to the dealer and several swarming antagonists.
Even some recipients of “Mother’s Day” largess are critical of the system on which they depend.
Matt Reynolds, 36, described himself as a ski instructor and fishing boat pilot temporarily down on his luck. Reynolds, a native of Cape Cod, Mass., said he got stuck in San Francisco two days before Christmas last year when someone broke into his Chevrolet van and stole $4,000 he had hidden in a mattress.
His efforts to find work since have mostly failed. Lately, he has taken to positioning himself outside paint stores hoping to catch a day-labor painting job. At night, he sleeps in the van.
Reynolds, who said he conquered a severe drinking problem eight years ago, said he is grateful for the money. “I’ve never been in this predicament before,” he said. But he is troubled by the abuse he sees of the cash-payment system.
“I can guarantee you that over 70% of this money is going right back into drugs. Some of the things allowed to happen in San Francisco would never be permitted back home in Boston,” Reynolds said before leaving to buy laundry soap and a pack of cigarettes.