Without a net

Newsom's budget: More hungry homeless people, more deaths at SF General
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news@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors heard more than four hours of public comment at its Jan. 27 meeting, as hundreds of labor representatives, public-health workers, homeless advocates, hospital staffers, and others crowded into the board chambers to sound off on the deep budget cuts that many charged would leave they city's critical-services safety net in shreds.

The message was chilling.

On the ground, the budget cuts Mayor Gavin Newsom is proposing translate into staggering losses in services that segments of the city's most disadvantaged populations rely on. Among those who will lose their jobs: some San Francisco General Hospital staffers who are trained to watch the cardiac monitors. "They are the first responders when someone goes into cardiac arrest," nurse Leslie Harrison told the board during public comment. "This is a life and death job — literally."

The Huckleberry House, which was established in 1967 and provides assistance to more than 7,000 homeless youth each year, may face closure.

Homeless shelters are already being forced to turn away two out of three clients seeking a bed due to lack of space, according to Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach.

Demand for hot meals from the St. James Infirmary, a clinic for uninsured sex workers, has tripled since the onset of the recession, Executive Director Naomi Akres told the Guardian. As a result of the cuts, the clinic will lose its ability to continue either the food program or an outreach program that aims to get people off the streets.

Other areas that face funding reductions, according to a tally of midyear reductions issued by the mayor's office, include some programs that administer STD testing and HIV prevention services, the Adult Day Health programs at Laguna Honda Hospital, aid for foster care, and the Single Room Occupancy Collaborative (which assists low-income tenants living in dilapidated hotel rooms across the city). San Francisco's Human Services Agency will lay off 67 staffers.

Of the $118 million in midyear cuts rolled out by the mayor's office last December, some $46 million will be shed from health, human welfare, and neighborhood-development services.

The midyear reductions, which will begin to take effect Feb. 20, are aimed at addressing a steep drop-off in revenue for the 2008–09 fiscal year. Now, health and human services providers and others across the board are anxiously looking ahead to the next round of blows, which will be dealt to address a projected $576 million deficit for the 2009–10 fiscal year, which begins in July. That figure could be reduced to $461 million after budget cuts, according to Deputy Controller Monique Zmuda.

Newsom has known about the gravity of the current budget problem since late October, when City Controller Ben Rosenfield issued a memo projecting fiscal disaster. "Since the adoption of the budget in July, the City's economic outlook has significantly worsened, particularly since the onset of the global financial market upheavals that began in September," the memo states. It goes on to predict a worst-case scenario of $125 million in tax-revenue shortfalls for the 2008–09 fiscal year.

Cuts in frontline services don't have to be the only answer. Supervisor Chris Daly has introduced an alternative budget proposal, which includes reductions in funding for management positions, cuts in the city's subsidy to the symphony, and a reduction in the size of the mayor's press office in an effort to free up funds that could then be diverted back to critical services. "I don't think any of the choices are good. There's really only the lesser of the evil," Daly noted at the meeting.

The choices the city faces were described in clear terms.