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Tough love or tough luck?
Why Sup. Gavin Newsom's new approach to "solving" homelessness won't work.

By Cassi Feldman

IT'S THE TAIL end of the Jan. 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, and Gavin Newsom is on a roll. Ignoring Tom Ammiano's pleas for brevity, the would-be mayor is determined to explain how he plans to solve the city's homeless problem. Even this rushed, informal speech is punctuated with the selective word emphasis and dramatic hand gestures of a practiced politician. Love him or hate him, the 34-year-old is nothing if not suave.

And now he's dragged the city's most vulnerable residents into his campaign.

Newsom knows that homelessness is the hot-button issue in San Francisco. "Our system is broken – it needs to be fixed," he has repeatedly declared. To that end, he has proposed a host of hearings and legislative reforms. He wants to create a department of homeless services and a centralized shelter-intake point for homeless adults. He wants restrictions on public panhandling and a hotline to report quality-of-life crimes.

Bolstered by a flurry of articles on homelessness in the daily papers, Newsom and now Sup. Tony Hall are advocating a tough-love approach and pointing to New York City as an example of what works.

But there's another side to that story. On Jan. 15 New York was named the country's single "meanest" city for homeless people by the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project. Contrary to what the San Francisco Chronicle would have you believe, homelessness is on the rise in New York and has been for years. Although former mayor Rudolph Giuliani did increase funding for shelters, he has also been accused of enacting policies that harm the very people they supposedly serve.

Critics say Newsom's sudden interest in homelessness is self-serving. By getting homeless people off the streets, he can increase real estate values, while laying the groundwork for an upcoming mayoral campaign. Newsom disputes this charge, insisting that he has spent years on the issue and has come to realize that it isn't "compassionate" to let people live on the streets. But that's what Giuliani said too.

Is New York the answer?

Even before he took office in 1994, Giuliani made it clear that he would change the way New York addressed homelessness. Vowing to improve tourism and make the city safer, he "cleaned up" Times Square, streamlined the shelter system, and used police to enforce vagrancy laws.

His supporters say that it's worked. Robert Mascali, of the city's Homeless Services Department, told the Bay Guardian that Giuliani improved street outreach, beefed up shelter security, and helped homeless people access services such as job placement and drug counseling. Last year alone, 1,400 single adults and 3,300 families were placed in permanent housing.

But Mascali also admits those numbers are down from years past. Maybe that's why Francena Jones, a 41-year-old New Yorker whom we interviewed by phone, has been sleeping in a chair at the St. Agnes Drop-in Center for two years, waiting for a room in a residential hotel. Even though she has hepatitis C and caught pneumonia last year, Jones refuses to check in to a long-term shelter. "I've been there," she said. "There's too many fights. People steal; a lot are on drugs."

That's not the only difference between what the city claims and what we heard from homeless people in New York. Mascali insists that no one is denied shelter in New York, but 22-year-old John Petion told us he gets turned away half of the time he tries to get a bed. If anything, critics say, Giuliani made it harder for the average person to get shelter. If a homeless family have relatives they can stay with temporarily, for example, they may not be eligible for assistance.

Here's the key question: If New York's homeless system is, as a Chronicle editorial recently claimed, "a model of the possible," why has its homeless population been rising since 1998, long before the recession hit? Last year, according to Mascali, an average of 27,962 New Yorkers were sleeping in shelters each night, compared with 23,551 in 1994.

The Village Voice reported Dec. 8, 1999, that even while the city had a staggering $2.6 billion surplus, Giuliani slashed the affordable housing budget to half of what was spent in the late 1980s. "We have developed this huge sheltering system here," said Joe Weisbord, coordinator of an N.Y.-based coalition called Housing First! "But what we really haven't done is develop the kind of comprehensive affordable housing policy to get people out of the shelters and keep them out."

Cause and effect

Local activists say Newsom's plan is equally shortsighted. By focusing on homeless people's behavior, he ignores the direct correlation between the lack of affordable housing and the rise in homelessness. When annual U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budgets are plotted on a chart, the first sharp drop – in 1983 – corresponds to San Francisco's first huge spike in homelessness. At the same time, Ronald Reagan was slashing funding for social welfare and pushing the mentally ill out of institutions and onto the street.

Bob Prentice was working for the San Francisco Department of Public Health at the time and remembers being asked by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to help create the city's first shelters. "What Gavin is doing, and what the Chronicle editorial was crowing about in New York, no longer has anything to do with a vision of getting rid of homelessness," he said. "It's about managing homeless people, getting rid of the political problem of homelessness."

Newsom insists that his motives run deeper. After five years of working to improve drug treatment and residential hotels, he said, he wanted to do more. "I felt I was failing, and I was part of the problem," he said. But rather than help implement the existing Continuum of Care plan – to which hundreds of homeless people and advocates contributed – Newsom decided to take an "external look." He has proposed 28 individual changes so far and says he isn't done yet.

The timing is noteworthy. As he contemplates a run for mayor, Newsom is following in the footsteps of Mayor Willie Brown and his two predecessors in using the issue as a way to win votes. "He's obviously running for mayor on the backs of homeless people," Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said. "And homeless people's backs are already sore from sleeping on the concrete."

But Newsom claims he's only hurting himself. "If [you] didn't have a reason to hate me, now you have a real reason to hate me," he said. Yet in the very next breath, he told us that letters he's received from constituents are running 15 to 1 in favor of his plan.

The hidden agenda

Newsom may have another reason for wanting homeless people off the streets. As a millionaire business-owner with real estate ties, he could be trying to protect his own investments.

According to e-mails obtained by the Bay Guardian, Newsom recently joined Brown and George Smith of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness for a meeting with Curtis Davies, head of the Hotel and Leisure Advisory Group of real estate giant CB Richard Ellis. Although Davies signed one e-mail as "a very concerned, proactive, and proud citizen of San Francisco," he has a clear financial interest as well: homeless people don't go over well with tourists.

Davies wrote that he wanted to discuss the Doe Fund, a program that "helps the homeless and helps clean our streets." The Doe Fund (named for an anonymous New York woman who died homeless) is known for its Ready, Willing, and Able program, in which men and women trade their welfare benefits for a shelter bed and a street-sweeping job. According to the Doe Fund's Web site, more than 1,000 formerly homeless men and women in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., have graduated from the program into permanent jobs and housing. In light of this success, the agency recently received a $176 million, 22-year contract to run a new shelter for men in Brooklyn.

But the Doe Fund isn't your typical homeless organization. While most New York service providers fought Giuliani's tactics, the Doe Fund's founder, former business executive George McDonald, told us he didn't consider the mayor particularly harsh: "I think he said exactly what I said, that people need to accept personal responsibility, and you have to give them an opportunity to do that." Although the Doe Fund pays workers $5.50 to $6.50 an hour, it also charges them $65 a week for room and board and requires regular drug testing.

McDonald admits that his approach might not go over well in San Francisco. It certainly didn't in Washington. An April 13, 2000, Washington Post article reported that the D.C. branch of the program was defunded in a cloud of scandal. A local official called it a "slipshod operation" with "incredibly bad" record keeping.

Despite this criticism, Newsom said he is intrigued by Ready, Willing, and Able and hopes to use city money to fly McDonald to San Francisco to discuss bringing the program here.

Newsom's offensive strategy

Although Newsom is careful to explain that he's researched a number of different cities, many of his ideas, like the Doe Fund, come straight from the Big Apple.

One of those is the creation of a department of homelessness, which critics consider a waste of already limited resources. In an Oct. 26, 2001, letter the directors of San Francisco's Department of Human Services, Health Department, and Mayor's Office on Homelessness argued against the new department: "We believe we will have more success – financially and programmatically – in addressing the root causes of homelessness if the services to this population become more integrated with existing anti-poverty and health promotion programs rather than treating the homeless differently from other poor and needy San Franciscans."

Another contested proposal is the development of "centralized intake," a first stop for those entering the shelter system. Doug Hagan, a former volunteer in Newsom's office, recently visited New York's 30th Street Shelter, where single adult men get referred to other facilities. Although he only spent four to five hours there, Hagan told us he could see the benefits of centralized intake, which is now part of Newsom's plan.

But Patrick Markee of New York's Coalition for the Homeless said he considers centralized intake a bad idea. "That's the main mechanism they used to increase the denials," he said. "You can close the door on your system if you only have one door." By placing most intake centers outside of Manhattan, he added, Giuliani effectively lured homeless people out of sight, creating the illusion that he had cleaned up New York.

The most controversial part of Newsom's plan was unveiled Jan. 7: a proposed law against panhandling on median strips and in city-owned parking garages, punishable by a $500 fine or jail time. Newsom admits that the law sounds "mean-spirited" but believes that "some people need to be coerced" to get help. Panhandlers are not "doing themselves any service by being out on the street soliciting money from strangers," he said.

Accountability for whom?

The language of personal accountability is tempting, but it overlooks the larger context of poverty.

Nobody wants homeless people to live on the streets. Although San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness has been accused of hindering change, its director, Paul Boden, said he is more than willing to hear new ideas – as long as they don't criminalize the city's poor. But he is wary of social policy shaped by political and financial concerns.

So is Donald Smith, a 54-year-old we interviewed one night outside Multi-Service Center South, the city's largest emergency shelter. Like most homeless people we encountered, he is careful to explain that his situation is temporary; he works odd jobs whenever he can and is searching for a permanent home. But Smith isn't terribly optimistic. He explained, "You have to make at least $50,000 to live in this city."

Local advocates say that Newsom is simply juggling city resources rather than demanding the funding necessary to create lasting change. "If you need drug treatment, temporary shelter, or long-term affordable housing, most of these things are simply not available in San Francisco in the quantities necessary to meet the needs of people on the street," said Chris Carlsson, who studies the city's social history. "There's something really perverse about a politician demanding that poor people be held accountable for not taking advantage of services that don't exist."

Savannah Blackwell contributed to this report.

E-mail Cassi Feldman at cassi@sfbg.com.