April 24, 2002


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Down for the count
Centralized homeless database for S.F. is quietly moving forward.

By Cassi Feldman

SUP. GAVIN Newsom caused an uproar in January when he released a plan to address homelessness that struck many as more punitive than palliative. But while most of Newsom's ideas are now mired in the bureaucratic process, one is on the fast track in Washington, D.C.

San Francisco has already requested $750,000 from the government to create a database to track individual homeless people, the Bay Guardian learned from internal documents obtained last week. The federally mandated system would likely include information such as length of stays in city shelters, demographic characteristics, employment status, and housing history.

Critics say that a homeless person shouldn't be forced to answer a slew of personal questions before he or she is allowed to use a shelter bed. And though the plan is still vague, city officials admit that the use of fingerprinting, a particularly contentious part of Newsom's proposal, is still a possibility.

Board of Supervisors president Tom Ammiano told us he was dismayed to learn the database was on a short list of priorities submitted to the city's congressional representatives. "It was just another wake-up call that if we want an effective program, one that brings everybody to the table, we need to be more vigilant," he said.

Even Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who cosponsored a Feb. 15 resolution to "explore the possibility" of centralized intake, told us she only recently learned about the request for funds. "When I saw what the money was for, I had concerns about it," she said. "I'm listening to find out exactly where it's going."

San Francisco's Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which offers input on the city's homeless policy, was also cut out of the loop. Member Jennifer Friedenbach told us she asked for more details on the database at the board's April meeting, but city officials were tight-lipped. "I think they have a pretty specific plan," she said. "It's just not an agenda that they're sharing with community folks."

Public money, private lives

Many question whether San Francisco should even be pursuing these funds. On a national level, some advocacy groups are taking a stand against centralized intake.

"We're extremely concerned," said Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "It's not appropriate to pressure battered women's shelters to release clients' names and social security numbers, even for a very worthy goal." Though Rosenthal considers the push well-intended, she points out that there are less intrusive ways to gather information, such as requesting aggregate data from shelters instead.

Immigrant rights groups are also acutely aware of privacy concerns. "A centralized system would devastatingly impact immigrant communities, particularly those who are here undocumented," said Renee Saucedo, director of the Day Labor Program. "People would feel constant fear and even terror to use their real name, for fear of being discovered by INS."

The Day Labor Program and 45 other community-based organizations endorsed a response to Newsom's proposals that included a scathing critique of centralized intake.

"Centralized information and intake are hugely expensive, violate rights, and result in no tangible benefits to homeless people themselves," the response stated.

Man with the plan

George Smith of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness disagrees. He told us the city needs this type of data to figure out how to prioritize different programs. Besides, he said, the city has no choice in the matter. San Francisco is simply following a 2001 congressional mandate that requires cities to get an "unduplicated count" of those using their shelter systems by 2004 – or risk losing federal funds.

To get the ball rolling, Smith said, his office drafted an initial request for proposals to find a consultant to research "a system we all can live with." He said he had no idea how much that system would cost or what it would consist of. "Everybody wants you to have done some facts and figures, but we don't really know."

Strangely, Mayor Willie Brown had no trouble putting a price tag on the plan. Although the funding request was recently withdrawn on the House of Representatives side, according to Brendon Daly, press secretary to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it seems to be moving forward in the Senate. David Sandretti, communications director for Sen. Barbara Boxer, confirmed that she received a request for $750,000 from the city and forwarded it to the Appropriations Committee.

Some wonder why the mayor is seeking funding for a database that is still only vaguely defined. His press secretary, P.J. Johnston, explained that the mayor does not need anyone's approval to make such a request. But how did he arrive at the $750,000 sum? And how exactly will that money be spent?

"Presumably an MIS [management information system] of this magnitude is going to cost in the millions," Johnston said. "It is reasonable to apply to the federal government for funding that will help in part finance this system. The administration felt like it was a reasonable amount to go after."

Out of touch

Homeless advocates say the system doesn't sound reasonable to them, particularly given this year's budget crunch. Many told us they were particularly worried it may involve fingerprinting, as Newsom first suggested in January. "Such an identification system will include the consideration of, but not be limited to, fingerprint imaging technology," his proposed ordinance stated.

Johnston said there's been no firm decision either way. "For us the issue is case management," he said. "I don't know if anyone is addicted to the idea of fingerprinting."

But neither Johnston nor Smith would rule out the use of fingerprints as a potential way to identify shelter clients. That irks many local advocates, who say fingerprinting smacks of law enforcement – and is a colossal waste of money.

Last year the city spent close to $600,000 to fingerprint welfare recipients. That money went to the Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp., a company that reported $7.2 billion in new contracts for the first quarter of 2002.

Some service providers say the database funding could be spent in better ways. The Self-Help Center, run by Central City Hospitality House – the only place in the Tenderloin where a homeless person can get a hot meal, make a phone call, and talk to a counselor – is currently at risk of being scaled back or shut down because of budget cuts. It serves approximately 10,000 people each year.

Ironically, the proposed database system would be operated from drop-in centers just like that one. If there are any left.

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