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Health and human services budget cuts will show on the streets

A little less than an hour before the Tenderloin Health Resource Community Center is scheduled to open for the afternoon, a line forms outside and stretches down Leavenworth Street. If they arrive early enough at this drop-in center for the chronically homeless, people can get health services or be put on a list for a bed in a homeless shelter. For many, the drop-in center is simply a place to use the bathroom, have a snack, or take refuge from the street.

Once the doors have been unlocked, every seat inside the center is filled. Most clients are African American men. A few are in wheelchairs. One has a hacking cough. The atmosphere feels like a rundown waiting room at a doctor's office, filled with dispirited patients. Standing quietly near the entrance is a security guard, dressed all in black with a pink mask covering her nose and mouth.

Tenderloin Health is contracted to provide services for 6,000 individual clients per year, according to Colm Hegarty, the organization's director of resource development. In reality, it serves twice as many.

But it appears that the center's days are numbered. Its initial city funding of $1 million a year was halved in 2008, Hegarty explained. In the latest round of deep budget cuts — dealt to address next year's gaping budget deficit — the rest of its funded was eliminated.

While the decision hasn't been finalized, Hegarty says, the center will likely have to close its doors for good June 30. It's just one of many San Francisco health and human services programs that will be affected by looming budget cuts, which were mandated by Mayor Gavin Newsom to balance an unprecedented shortfall, projected at more than $500 million for the coming fiscal year, that was triggered by the economic downturn. Newsom, meanwhile, has twice vetoed legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors calling for a special election to ask voters to raise taxes to save programs such as this one.

For the clients of Tenderloin Health, just a stone's throw from City Hall, the deep cuts have real-life consequences. "The question is going to become where will these people go?" Hegarty wonders.

Brendan Bailey, an occasional client at the drop-in center who says he's currently staying in a shelter, echoed Hegarty's concern. "I'd think that they would rather have them here than wandering the street," he said, gesturing toward the center's crowded waiting room.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, sounded a similar note at a recent Human Services Agency budget hearing, where it was announced that homeless shelters might also be shut during the day in an effort to save money.

"We were basically putting forth this idea that if they're both going to close the Tenderloin Health and close the shelters during the day, it really ends up being a recipe for disaster in terms of people's ability to get off the streets," Friedenbach said. "It just would be incredibly problematic ... They need to be somewhere."

Another blow to homeless services are cuts to the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, which operates a program that caters to homeless women. All told, Newsom wants 25 percent slashed from the Department of Human Services budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. According to a list of proposed reductions presented to the San Francisco Human Services Commission Feb. 12, at least 62 staff positions will be eliminated. That figure doesn't include layoffs that are taking effect in the next couple months as a response to the current year's midyear budget adjustments.

Another eliminated component of human services is the agency's Civil Rights Office, which consisted of two full-time staffers who were responsible for investigating complaints from clients who felt they had experienced some form of discrimination.