I will admit to a bias up front: I was against Care Not Cash in 2002, when Gavin Newsom used it as a cynical play to get elected mayor by bashing the homeless. I always argued that the city would be taking away the already-tiny welfare payments from people in exchange for housing that isn't there. Imagine living on $422 a month in San Francisco. Now imagine that's been cut to $59 a month -- because the city's determined that you can sleep in a shelter bed. Great fucking deal.
And that's what happens. Care not Cash allows the city to reduce a homeless person's general assistance grant to $59 a month as soon as the city finds housing for the person. And a shelter counts as housing.
There are lots of problems with the scenario -- like this and and this. In essence, the city sets aside a certain number of shelter beds for people in the CNC program, but they don't all show up, so there are empty beds -- and people who need a place to sleep can't get them because they're earmarked as "housing" for an anti-homeless program.
So five supervisors have come up with a ballot initiative that would make one small, but significant change in the Care Not Cash legislation. It would specify that shelters don't count as housing. That's it. That's the entire amendment. (You can read the proposed law here (pdf)
It makes perfect logical sense. You want to tell a homeless person that instead of giving you welfare payments, we're going to give you housing? Fine. Then make it housing. Wasn't that the premise of CNC from the start?
But somehow, CNC stalwarts (including those who make money off the program) are outraged, claiming this will gut the entire effort. In the Chronicle story, Mayor Ed Lee notes that
"By removing the shelter system from the available benefits provided to Care Not Cash recipients, we dismantle this path to getting people housed, ultimately undermining the success of the nationally recognized, award-winning program."
Of course, the proposal doesn't remove the shelter system from the available benefits. Sup. Jane Kim, the sponsor, and her colleagues aren't talking about shutting down shelters or kicking homeless people out. The measure just says you can't take someone's welfare grant away just because you found him or her a temporary cot in a noisy, often unsafe shelter that offers no privacy and operates under random rules that at lot of us would find intolerable.
Again, my bias is against the entire premise of Care Not Cash. I think the city (and the state and the feds) ought to be providing homeless people with enough money to get a place to live and enough to eat. That's the way it used to work -- when I arrived in San Francisco, you could actually afford to rent a room in a shared house with General Assistance money, and you could live reasonably -- not in luxury, but reasonably -- on federal SSI payments. But the cost of housing has so outstripped the increase in welfare payments that people wind up on the streets.
But if we're going to do the Care Not Cash thing, shouldn't the city be required to provide real housing before the grants get cut off?
Randy Shaw, who runs a bunch of Care Not Cash hotels under city contract, doesn't think so. He argues that
[T]he measure repeals CNC’s central premise that homeless single adults on welfare should not get $422 per month if they refuse SRO housing. The initiative also dramatically reverses San Francisco homeless policy: it replaces a system designed to get homeless people housed with one subsidizing homeless people to live permanently in shelters. The measure increases homelessness and provides no alternative funding to make up for the millions of CNC dollars that would be eliminated from the city’s supportive housing budget.
I understand the concern about the CNC money (some of which, again, goes to Shaw's operation). If the city starts paying $422 a month to some people who are now only getting $59, that money will have to come from someplace. But this whole notion that the proposed change will allow the city to give cash grants to people who "refuse SRO housing" seems a bit off.
"We haven't changed that part at all," Jennifer Freidenbach, who runs the Coalition on Homelessness and was involved in drafting the measure, told me. "People who refuse SRO housing would still get their grants cut."
I asked Shaw about this -- and also about my understanding that there isn't enough SRO housing for every homeless person who wants a place to live. Should people on the waiting list get their grants cut off because the city can stick them in a shelter in the meantime?
For whatever reason, my old pal Randy hasn't responded. (I continue to be boggled by two things -- Shaw never calls people before he trashes them, and he seems unwilling to have substantive debates with me when I want to talk to him. That last time I emailed him to ask why he didn't call people for comment, he responded: "I see the issue very differently and disagree with your premise." How is that helpful? This time he didn't answer at all.)
The oddest thing is that Shaw -- a longtime housing advocate who has spent 30 years working to help low-income people -- has adopted a remarkably strident, even harsh tone that reminds me of the rhetoric that Newsom and his allies used to use. Consider:
Understand we are talking about people who have the option of accepting permanent housing but refuse. People who want to get a full city grant, live in a city-funded shelter, but want the right to pay nothing.
Jeez. Those lazy welfare bums who want "the right" to a place to live and a miniscule, tiny cash grant.
There was a time when liberals used to talk about a guaranteed national income. Now the debate in progressive San Francisco involves bashing poor people. Wow.
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