San Francisco Program Combats Homelessness with Innovation
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MAN: Thank you, mayor.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: You take care. Thank you.
SPENCER MICHELS: Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor for just over a year, has gotten to know plenty of the homeless who loiter on the streets near city hall and around a nearby farmers market.
Newsom has made ending homelessness a priority in a city where one out of every 87 residents is homeless. He says it’s the highest-per-capita homeless population in the country. On a recent walk with us, Newsom said the problem is much better than it used to be.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: Literally three months ago you would have seen 40, 50 shopping carts, encampments right in here. The library had been taken over the last three years completely by homeless and transients.
SPENCER MICHELS: To change that, in May of 2004, Newsom implemented a plan he said would end chronic homelessness in ten years. It reduces welfare payments for the homeless by 86 percent and uses the savings to pay for housing and increased services. Called Care Not Cash, he made it part of his campaign with TV spots like this.
AD SPOKESPERSON: I took your cash and I bought drugs.
AD SPOKESPERSON: Crack.
AD SPOKESPERSON: Heroin.
AD SPOKESPERSON: What I needed was care, not cash.
SPENCER MICHELS: Welfare payments for single homeless people have been cut from $410 a month, one of the highest in the nation, to just $59. The money saved, totaling $14 million, pays for leasing hotels.
SPOKESPERSON: And I can give you a referral for a vacancy to go tomorrow.
SPENCER MICHELS: It also provides care in the form of services like counseling.
SPOKESPERSON: If you have any questions for me…
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: If the idea is we are going to buy our way out of being responsible by just handing you a check and saying “good luck,” that’s outrageous. There’s no care there. The fact is with Care Not Cash, you are guaranteed services before the cash grant is cut.
SPENCER MICHELS: Newsom pointed to the Tenderloin: A poor, crime-ridden section of San Francisco where 12 formerly decrepit hotels have been leased by the city, upgraded using welfare funds, and now house 1,000 formerly homeless people.
Newsom’s plan follows years of frustration. Under pressure from businesses and residents, a series of mayors tried various approaches to reducing or hiding chronic homelessness, including police actions to keep the homeless out of parks and out of sight.
Shelters were opened with high hopes, but clients said they were dangerous. People with substance abuse or mental problems could spend a few nights in shelters, but they were expected to be clean and sober before even being considered for permanent housing.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: The worst thing we’ve done in this country is warehouse people in temporary spaces permanently.
SPENCER MICHELS: Many of the chronic homeless on the streets, like Alan Lewis, who’s been homeless 22 years, didn’t trust officials, shelters or hotels.
ALAN LEWIS: Are we going to live in a raggedy hotel with bugs and spiders in it? They came to me and asked me why I refused to stay in a shelter. It’s just like I said before, there are nasty people in there, totally disrespect. You know what I’m saying? And you never know who you’re sleeping next to.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nothing seemed to work, according to Philip Mangano, a top homeless official in the Bush administration.
PHILIP MANGANO: The irony in San Francisco for years was that they had some of the most innovative and creative ideas on homelessness in the country, and they also had the most visible and the most disgraceful issue of street homelessness in the country existing side by side.
SPENCER MICHELS: But today Newsom says Care Not Cash is working. He cited a new overnight survey showing a 28 percent decline in the total homeless population from two years ago and a 41 percent drop in homeless on the streets.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: Every year it showed an increase. This year it miraculously showed a decrease. We have a reduction in our street population, reduction in panhandling.
MAN: I’m stressed out. There’s drugs out here. I’m a victim and I don’t like it.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: Are you on the wait list for the housing?
MAN: Yes, sir.
SPENCER MICHELS: Newsom has made it city policy to provide permanent housing, with supportive services for chronically homeless people first, and deal with their mental health or substance abuse problems later. And that directly benefited 35- year-old Steven Devald, who moved to San Francisco from Colorado and who is schizophrenic.
STEVEN DEVALD: About seven years that I’ve been homeless, since I became ill in my late 20s.
SPENCER MICHELS: You were just living out on the street? I mean, staying, sleeping on sidewalks and so forth?
STEVEN DEVALD: Wherever I could find a place, in parks, in sidewalks, in the mountains sometimes.
SPENCER MICHELS: Devald qualified for housing under the mayor’s plan and recently moved into a rehabbed single-room occupancy, or SRO hotel, where he has a small room of his own. He lives just a block from a newly opened medical clinic that caters to hotel residents.
STEVEN DEVALD: Hi, I’m here to see the Dr. Swedlow.
SPENCER MICHELS: He sees a variety of health workers. The clinic is funded by federal and city money. Devald still occasionally panhandles, but he is encouraged by the changes he has seen in his neighborhood.
STEVEN DEVALD: This is one of the most difficult, dangerous places to live. It used to be just person after person after person living on the sidewalks, begging for change. There was no place to go. It was like they ran out of West. Now they have programs and healthcare and a chance at civility and a way to live.
BEN AMYES: Do me a favor and sit up?
SPENCER MICHELS: Longtime city outreach worker Ben Amyes now has housing he can offer his clients; 800 newly rehabbed rooms were filled in March. There’ll be 1,200 by June.
BEN AMYES: I’m going to the van call right now. And I’m gong to tell her that I’ve got one room reserved for you, okay? That’s all I got today.
WOMAN: A room?
BEN AMYES: A room at an SRO, okay? And we’re…
WOMAN: If I go right now I can sleep inside tonight?
BEN AMYES: If you go there before 4:00…
SPENCER MICHELS: Aymes admits the city doesn’t have enough rooms to meet the current demand, and that shortage is just one of several criticisms of the mayor’s homeless program. Juan Prada, director of the coalition on homelessness, says only one in three needy homeless people gets housing, while the others simply get less money.
JUAN PRADA: So what we see is a policy that focuses on housing a few people, the most visible cases of the homeless people, at the expense of other people that are losing their benefits; they’re being left out in the cold, and we just simply don’t know where they end up.
SPENCER MICHELS: Prada also questions the accuracy of the survey that shows a big drop in homelessness.
JUAN PRADA: We haven’t seen that. What we do see is a move from people in the central areas of San Francisco to outer neighborhoods, pushed out by this combination of diminishing resources and law enforcement.
SPENCER MICHELS: As evidence that homelessness is far from solved, coalition members took us to Saint Boniface Church, in the Tenderloin, which every day allows up to 120 homeless people to use the sanctuary for daytime sleeping. The homeless in the pews speak to the policies of Care Not Cash, according to the overseer of the Church, Shelly Roder.
SHELLY RODER, St. Boniface Church: They’re only affecting really a minute portion of the homeless community. But the majority of the homeless community aren’t on the city welfare benefits, and those folks aren’t getting the services that they need still in order to exit homelessness and moving on to supportive housing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Next door is Saint Anthony’s Dining Room, which is serving 2,400 free meals a day, up 14 percent from last year. The critics also say that by concentrating on the chronically homeless, who make up just 10 to 20 percent of all homeless people, the mayor’s program neglects homeless families.
But the mayor argues the chronically homeless account for nearly 70 percent of social service costs, including emergency rooms and jails. Newsom, a self-described liberal Democrat, says his plan will work provided he gets support from the federal government, which, he notes, has recently cut housing funds.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: This is a national disgrace, and there is no leadership at the federal level, absolutely none on this — Democrats, Republicans. Did you hear in the last presidential election, homelessness? Not even close.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Newsom does praise federal homeless coordinator Philip Mangano for trying. And Mangano sees San Francisco as a laboratory where new ideas are starting to pay off.
PHILIP MANGANO: San Francisco has the potential of being the tipping point of homelessness in our country. When people see a change on the streets of San Francisco, they’ll understand that change on homelessness is possible anywhere in our country.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM: It takes just a tiny transition. So be patient.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mayor Newsom says that by July every homeless person whose welfare check was cut will have housing and services. But the irony, he says, is that by succeeding, San Francisco will attract new homeless, making it even harder to end chronic homelessness in ten years.