Mayor Gavin Newsom is publicly claiming to support the city's poor and homeless, but his budget would quietly cut 4 percent from the Department of Public Health's annual funding, eliminating key support services to the city's most vulnerable residents.
What the mayor calls his "back-to-basics budget" would double the number of outreach workers for his signature Homeless Connect program and establish a community court to punish "quality-of-life crimes" as they occur, but it also would cut substance-abuse and mental-health services, close homeless shelters, and eliminate funding to various services for the poor.
"It's probably the most hypocritical and damaging budget for the city's homeless and poor that we've seen in years," Juan Prada, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told the Guardian. "We have all this new money going to a community court system to force people into treatment programs that he's defunding."
Now the budget is in the hands of the Board of Supervisors, which is hearing appeals from health care advocates and people who depend on such services to survive. Some say this is a familiar game. Debbi Lerman, administrator for the San Francisco Human Services Network, says that every year the mayor recommends such cuts and the supervisors restore the funding.
"It's a dance. Everyone has to go to the Health Commission, everyone has to go to the board. It's a dance we have to go through every year," Lerman told us. "It's frustrating. It's exhausting. It's a bad process and we shouldn't have to do it.... What the city needs is a long-term planning process."
Even Sup. Bevan Dufty, a Budget and Finance Committee member likely to be a swing vote between the mayor's budget and the demands of board progressives, calls the process of cutting and restoring funding a "fire drill" in which people who depend on city services are forced to come out and comment in front of the board.
"It's difficult and disheartening to see people in fragile health being forced to come to the board to petition us to restore funding to services that are a lifeline for them," Dufty told us. "This board has not accepted cuts to health programs even in difficult years, and I don't anticipate that we are going to accept any this year."
But if the board cannot find additional funding, many programs that were at risk in past years could be eliminated or weakened. One new cut would eliminate $1.1 million in funding for Buster's Place, a drop-in homeless center on 13th Street. James Stillwell, Alcohol and Drug Program administrator for the DPH, told us the department provided the seed money to open that shelter in March. Now the shelter is scheduled to close at the end of June.
The mayor's budget also would cut 150 outpatient and residential treatment slots for substance abusers and replace them with a methadone van for recovering heroin addicts, with a $1.3 million net reduction in services. Larry Nelson, managing director of Walden House, which likely would lose some funding if those cuts go through, told us that more methadone treatment is needed but it should not come at the cost of other services.
"I personally was on methadone for nine years. I'm an advocate. It's a great tool in this war on drugs, but it's not a great idea to cut one service to fund another," Nelson said. "Methadone treatment is long-term.