Homelessness: Newsom's real legacy

The mayor put three different initiatives on the ballot that have spurred hatred against homeless people


OPINION His voice tinged with modest pride, Gavin Newsom recently announced that he has housed 12,000 people since becoming mayor. This is an absurdly high number, four times larger then any street count of homeless people since he has been in office, but it's been accepted by the media and public.

Homelessness has been a key issue for Newsom. He first got elected in large part by taking it on, and has been celebrated in some quarters as a champion for homeless people.

But digging behind the veneer, removing bus tickets out of town, permanent housing his predecessor, Willie Brown, created, and temporary stays and duplication, there are 1,395 permanently affordable housing units that Newsom can truly take credit for. More frequently his administration has housed people (fewer then 2,000) by leasing residential hotel rooms from slumlords and charging homeless people unaffordable rents to live there.

Only 14 percent of the units have been for families, although they make up 40 percent of the homeless population.

Newsom put three different initiatives on the ballot that have spurred hatred against homeless people. His signature operation was mixing kindness with punishment. This way, he wooed conservatives who saw through the camouflage, and liberals who did not.

Care Not Cash was the first measure. That campaign focused on accusing homeless welfare recipients of spending all their money on booze and drugs. The proponents claimed they would take public assistance away, in return for housing and treatment. The treatment part never came to fruition, and of course proponents never mentioned they were counting shelter as housing.

Care Not Cash catapulted Newsom into the limelight. His self-deprecating charm conveyed the message: "The status quo simply isn't working." In the end, benefits were slashed and perpetual shelter vacancies were created while shelter-seekers were turned away. Food lines exploded.

Newsom could have used his power to raise the money to house people — without stealing it from other destitute people. He chose not to.

The next year Newsom ran for mayor and simultaneously put an anti aggressive panhandling initiative on the ballot. In classic Newsom strategy, the proposition loosely defined the term "aggressive" and bizarrely required, but did not fund, substance abuse treatment for perpetrators.

It was the meanest campaign in three decades. Several violent acts were wrongly attributed to homeless people. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association put out billboards claiming homeless people spread venereal disease. Once implemented, the initiative made no visible impact on the number of panhandlers in San Francisco.

Most recently, Newsom introduced Proposition L, an ordinance that could put people in jail for 30 days on a second offense just for sitting or lying on the sidewalk. It passed, and set the parameters for very nasty dialogue about poor people once again in San Francisco.

All three of these votes took place very strictly along class lines — affluent people supported them and poor people did not.

Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice; it's a symptom of poverty. Yet Newsom's legacy of hatred against homeless people has made it difficult to amass the public support needed to create true solutions. Overstating his accomplishments and spreading myths about homeless people sets us back. It gives San Franciscans the impression homeless people have the help they need but simply choose to remain out on the cold hard pavement.

In a city filled with thousands of destitute people, it is now illegal to sleep unsheltered. After Newsom's plaster media façade crumbles, this will be his lasting legacy. *

Jennifer Freedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.


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