One of the first acts of Gavin Newsom’s administration was to create a Council to write a plan to end chronic homelessness in San Francisco in 10 years. This committee has just released a draft report, which will be finalized in the coming weeks.
Angela Alioto, a former Supervisor and mayoral candidate, was named to head this new Council. Ms. Alioto made homeless policy a major part of her mayoral campaign, specifically with her support for Proposition J. And since not receiving enough votes in the primary to make it into the November runoff election, she has continued to place herself at the center of the debate over San Francisco homeless policy. After her appointment as Chair of this new Council, Ms. Alioto hand picked what she has called a “civilian committee” to create San Francisco’s 10-year plan.
Why a 10 year plan
The 10-year-plan Council was created in order to access $70 million in federal money which the Bush administration has allocated to fight “chronic” homelessness. Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Chronicle have gone to great lengths to promote this Council and 10-year plan as a potential breakthrough in the effort to fight homelessness. However, neither the Mayor nor the Chronicle has been critical of the national political environment that created this grant promise. The Bush administration has, concurrent with its $70 million allocation for “chronic” homeless, cut $1 billion from Section 8 housing, in essence giving a $930 million boost to the promotion of homelessness. Pandering to this Bush administration creation is like thanking someone for stealing 93 cents out of the $1 that you were holding moments ago; then planning for months about what to use the remaining 7 cents for.
When we dig deeper even this $70 million dollar figure has to reevaluated. If San Francisco is successful in its bid for a portion of the $70 million up for grabs, it will be sharing it with an unknown number of other cities; 117 other cities are applying. If that amount were split evenly, San Francisco would be looking at a little over half a million dollars, which would, by definition, be allocated exclusively to “chronic” homeless services – a distinction highly controversial among service providers who challenge the efficacy and standard of that definition.
Political show-boating aside, there were those who hoped that the creation of a large Council to craft new policy could have positive consequences even if the money applied for proved to be illusory. A positive outcome, though, would be dependent upon the creation of a responsible and accountable Council.
The 10-Year Plan Council had 33 members with experience drawn from a variety of backgrounds: lawyers, doctors, care providers, business owners, homeless advocates, philanthropists, and city officials all sat on the same council.
The composition of this Council has been the cause of controversy from day one. Though it contains members with strong reputations for homeless advocacy, such as Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness and Mel Beetle, whose presence lends the council the appearance of plurality, it also contains members like John Hutar the Hotel Council Representative whose organization spent thousands on an ad campaign accusing homeless people of spreading diseases and shutting down businesses.
Ms. Alioto has said (referring to Mr. Hutar) that she wants “individuals to be part of this council that absolutely think homeless people are heroin addicts, drunks, good-for-nothings, [that they] could work but don’t work.” This premise for including someone so hostile toward the persons whose fate he is deciding is ridiculous. When trying to wrap our minds around the ponderous inclusion of an individual so unqualified for his position we must search for economic ties, not logic or forethought. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hutar was a huge supporter and contributor to Mayor Newsom in this last election and during his Care not Cash and Proposition M campaigns. Even Ms. Alioto’s inclusion on the Council is widely perceived to be a concession to her for an endorsement of Mayor Newsom during the runoff election and not as an appointment earned through years of service to the homeless community. Other members who do not have any experience in service providing or service consuming are a Schwab foundation member, a CEO for Jackson Personnel, an individual from the Wealth Management Group and a representative from the Joie de Vivre Hotels along with several small business owners. Those individuals on the Council who are involved in service providing are Directors and Founders of organizations, not direct service providers; no service consumers are represented.
During the creation of the 10-year Plan, the Council held a series of meetings to discuss various aspects of homeless policy, Outreach, Public Finance, Prevention, Mainstream Health, Permanent Housing, etc. Each of these meetings was open to the public, though not announced. Most hearings were held during the business day, none of the meetings was well publicized and none had translation available. After the meetings concluded and most of the groups that made up the 10-year Plan Council had already composed their submissions, two days of public hearings were added, May 26 and 27.
A Big Day
Wednesday, May 26, provided us with two examples of the quality of interaction between this 10-year plan council and San Francisco’s public. Taken together, these two days of testimony went a long way toward accurately predicting the Councils outcome, and the quality and usability of its findings.
During a hearing of the Outreach, Stabilization & Assessment Committee, Dr. Paul Quick of the Tom Waddell clinic gave testimony on the city’s choice to cut the D.E.A.P. team out of this coming years city budget. D.E.A.P. outreaches to GA recipients and to completely unconnected individuals and attempts to get any person eligible onto SSI. Dr. Quick made comments to the effect that it was counterintuitive for the city to blame clients for remaining on GA for long periods of time when it chose to cut money for assessing whether these people had disabilities that would last or have lasted long periods of time and would make them eligible for federal disability money. By cutting the D.E.A.P. team, Dr. Quick testified, the city was relegating itself to remaining in this same cycle of not linking clients to appropriate subsidies, thereby lengthening their stay on GA and limiting their access to appropriate medical care and housing.
During Dr. Quick’s testimony, Ms. Alioto the Chairwoman of this Committee, interrupted to ask the room what Dr. Quick meant when he spoke about SSI and GA. Ms. Alioto was unclear what the difference was between the two types of subsidies. It was explained that SSI was federal money allocated to people that had disabilities that lasted longer than 12 months and disallowed them from working, these subsidies come to as much as $872 a month and are linked to receipt of Medi-Cal health coverage. While GA money, which comes from the City general fund, is allocated to any person who is without economic means and lives within city limits, they do not need to be disabled and received no medical coverage with their subsidy.
The receipt of GA money, the criterion for eligibility and method for allocation, has been possibly the most debated aspect of city policy over the last several years. Gavin Newsom’s Care not Cash proposition was generally considered to be the measure that pushed him into the political spotlight. This measure dealt with the allocation of GA money and replaced the acceptance of cash with accepting housing. Supervisor Chris Daly sponsored a counter measure titled Real Care Real Housing to deal with some of the points of contention that the Board of Supervisors had with Newsom’s measure. Care not Cash was also challenged in court on more than one occasion; Ms. Alioto based much of her Mayoral campaign on challenging Newsom’s homeless propositions.
But despite the amount of public discourse on the subject, the Chairperson of the Homeless 10-Year Plan Council does not even know where this money comes from, what amount it is in or how it is different from Federal allocations.
Ostensibly, the committee has accepted the necessity and value of public input by allowing time for comment and observation; but allowing time for and respecting input are separate things.
On this same day, May 26, Saul Ramos – the Operations Manager of Dolores Street Housing, a shelter program that works within the Latino community – came to speak to the council. During public comment time, Saul stated that he did not feel that what had been presented so far by the committee addressed the needs of the Latino community and that the Committee dangerously devalued work done by organizations like Dolores Street. Saul quoted an interview given by a Ms. Alioto to highlight his point. In the interview, Ms. Alioto was quoted as saying that she felt that money going to Dolores Street was ill-used because it was going toward providing a free hotel for day laborers. Before Saul was able to finish his testimony he was interrupted by Ms Alioto, who said that she was personally offended by Saul’s use of the quote. Not denying the quotation or responding to its content, Ms. Alioto stated that Saul should make sure to let the Executive Director of Dolores Street know that she was personally offended by his presence and his statements. She finished his session by stating for the record that Dolores Street Program does not represent the Latino Community and that Saul Ramos does not represent the Latino community. After Saul spoke two other Dolores Street employees and a Dolores Street client spoke, and each was treated with the same dismissiveness and disrespect. Ms. Alioto ended the meeting by saying that Dolores Street’s representing the Latino Community was absurd.
In the room at the time were two currently homeless individuals who had come with the intention of giving testimony. After seeing how the Dolores Street employees and client had been dealt with, they decided to leave saying that they were not willing to go through the same ordeal.
Politically Motivated, Not Socially Driven
From the beginning created to chase illusory funding and without a sense of the political environment that birthed it, the Council was destined to create the type of policy that it released a few days ago.
The draft plan was released Wednesday, complete with press conference. It was said that there would be a 10-14 day period of review before the draft was finalized. How this review would take place, though, is anybody’s guess: there have been no public hearings planned or even any Council meetings scheduled before July 9, nearly the end of the review period. The draft has not been circulated widely, with some committee members receiving only two copies. If a member of the public were to get their hands on a copy, it is uncertain, even amongst Council members, how they would be able to give feedback. In keeping with their precedent, the Council seems almost frightened by the thought of interacting with the public.
The original copies of the draft that were circulated were photo copies, reasonable for a draft document, but on July 2 a color-copied bound document appeared a very high-priced production cost for a document supposedly still open for revision. If no public hearing time is added, we may well find out after the Council’s next and last meeting July 9 that the document is considered finished, with only Angela Alioto and a select few of her assistants having had say over the final draft.
In the final analysis, the most useful portions of the draft have essentially been accepted dogma amongst care providers for years. The draft plan calls for improving access to eviction defense services, SSI advocacy, and permanent supportive housing. All of these services already exist in San Francisco, though some are under threat of being cut by the city. The worst parts of the document are also old thinking. The plan calls for the redirection of funds from services for people not considered “chronic” toward people who do fit the definition under the plan. Carrying on the same sort of shell game that has confused the city’s priorities up till this point, and paving the way for a new section of people to become homeless after the services they rely on are cut, potentially becoming “chronic” themselves.
The amount of time dedicated to this plan was to serve as proof of the city’s dedication to finding solutions to social inequalities and the homelessness they create. The real proof, however, has been in the chauvinistic tone and practice of the Council, their disregard for community voices and pandering to business interests. For those people who were critical of the political foundations of this Council but who held out for fresh insight to be found in the document, there is very little to hold onto when trying to justify this whole process.