City Sued over Care not Cash, again

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by Amanda Witherell

Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates filed suit in US District Court today against the city of San Francisco for denying access to shelter beds for disabled homeless people. The suit alleges that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Care not Cash program sets aside a certain amount of beds that are thus unavailable to disabled people who are banned from the program.

“There are limited resources in the shelter system and there are large numbers of beds that are set aside that people with disabilities don’t have access to as a statutory matter,” said Julia Pinover, DRA’s attorney on the case. “The city has a responsibility to provide services equally.”

Care not Cash, which was passed by voters in 2002, pools the General Assistance money that used to go to individuals into a fund for financing housing and supportive services. People still receive small portions of their $395 GA cash -- $29 checks every two weeks – and they’re guaranteed shelter beds in exchange for giving the rest of the cash to the city. Not everyone uses their allocated beds, but they still must be set aside – thus eliminating them from the pool of beds available to other people seeking shelter.

Homeless people who receive Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, or veterans and disabled benefits do not get GA money and therefore cannot participate in Care not Cash. The suit alleges there are 60 to 80 Care Not Cash beds that go unfilled every night while hundreds of people seeking shelter are turned away. At least 50 percent of homeless people self-identify as disabled, though many consider that a low figure. “Because any person who is eligible for disability benefits is not able to participate in the CNC program even is there is an empty CNC bed at a shelter, a homeless person with a disability may be denied shelter solely because of his or her disabled status,” states the claim.

“Right now the shelter system for disabled people with mental illness is the equivalent to having a shelter at the top of a hill with a giant staircase and you’re in a wheelchair,” said Paul Boden of Western Regional Advocacy Project, a nonprofit homeless rights group based in San Francisco that is party to the class action suit. “It’s being run more like a capitalist venture than a social program. If it was a social program with a soul then disabled people, seniors, and women would be your priorities.”

Three homeless people are left seeking shelter for every one who receives it, the suit states, and people who are enrolled in Care not Cash receive assistance acquiring services and permanent housing, but people with disabilities who don’t get those benefits are additionally disenfranchised. “Now, with the loss of Buster’s Place, Ella Hill Hutch, Marian Residence, and Tenderloin Health Center the city’s basically saying we’re not making enough money off you,” said Boden, listing all the shelters and services that were shuttered this year.

Pinover said that since research on the suit began they’ve seen even more of a space crunch at shelters, with service workers saying only one to seven beds a day are released for access by the general public. “Every worker and every homeless person that we’ve spoken to said this system doesn’t work.”

Care not Cash has been controversial from the get-go. In 2002, about 60 percent of voters approved of Prop N, the legislation that allowed the city to reallocate general assistance funds in this way. The city originally lost a suit claiming voters couldn't decide how the money could be spent, but the ruling was later overturned by a higher court and the program was implemented.