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Street Shuffle 

Gavin Newsom's push to move the "chronic" homeless into supportive housing has made him the darling of the Bush administration's homelessness czar. But is there enough money to make it work?

Wednesday, Jun 16 2004
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There's a hint of triumph in his voice when Eric Jaye, who coined the term "Care Not Cash," talks about the homelessness initiative credited with getting Gavin Newsom elected as San Francisco's mayor. The slogan, which popped out of his computer during a fit of inspiration in the spring of 2002, couldn't have been better suited to its purpose. Not only was there something lyrical in the way the words flowed off the tongue, its deceptively simple message was impossible to demonize.

In the run-up to the November 2002 election, in which voters overwhelmingly approved Newsom's plan to swap food and shelter for the cash received by homeless people enrolled in the welfare program known as General Assistance, Jaye, Newsom's political consultant, knew he had struck gold. "Even while dissing it," he recalls, with an impish chuckle, "our opponents were endlessly forced to repeat the essence of what we were trying to get across."

Despite the remarkable extent to which it has burrowed into the collective consciousness of a city fed up with being the nation's homeless capital, Care Not Cash is little more than the prologue to a much larger anti-homelessness agenda that Newsom has made the lodestone of his fledgling administration. Contrary to expectations that flourished during Newsom's pole-vault into the Mayor's Office, there is little connection between the famously familiar catchphrase program and actually finding housing for the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 hard-core homeless people who've transformed the city's once-proud streets into latter-day Hoovervilles. It turns out that the vast majority of the so-called chronically homeless -- the most visible segment of a total homeless population pegged at between 8,000 and 15,000 -- possess no welfare check to take away in exchange for housing that would get them off the streets.

After a state appeals court in late April overturned a Superior Court judge's ruling that had invalidated Care Not Cash on technical grounds, finally clearing the way for it to go into effect, Newsom didn't glory in the outcome. (Opponents last week appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court.) These days, even Jaye speaks of Care Not Cash as only "one of many steps that need to be taken."

Indeed, the mayor who invited voters to judge him on how he deals with the homeless issue has in his first months in office steadily gone about turning the conventional wisdom of the homeless service-provider industry upside down, while hitching his wagon to a set of ideas that echo those of the Bush administration. Newsom makes no secret of his intent to focus his efforts on moving those 3,000 to 5,000 chronically homeless people -- the ones whom tourists, merchants, and hoteliers most often complain about -- from the streets into "permanent supportive housing," a strategy that closely mirrors the approach espoused with an almost religious zeal by Bush homelessness czar Philip Mangano.

Armed with a sheaf of new research and a bottomless pit of determination as a former private-sector advocate for the homeless, Mangano has assumed the unlikeliest of roles for someone in a Republican administration: cheerleader in chief for the goal of not just reducing homelessness, but eradicating it. And guess what? From the moment he was sworn into office, Newsom has assumed a similar posture. Even the centerpiece of the mayor's new strategy for dealing with the problem -- the establishment of a much-ballyhooed 10-Year Plan Council, presided over by Angela Alioto, Newsom's own homelessness czarette -- is a page drawn from the federal playbook.

There is much about the new approach that is appealing. Already, San Francisco is for the first time trying to collect meaningful data about its homeless, starting with those who use the city's roughly 1,300 temporary shelter beds. Despite squeals from some in the provider community who've complained about invasion of privacy in having to collect Social Security numbers and require that homeless people be fingerprinted, the new computerization program, with the acronym CHANGES, is going well, says Trent Rhorer, director of the city's Department of Human Services. Later this year it will be expanded to include people accessing drug and alcohol counseling and drop-in services.

That, too, is part of the new federal mandate, a reaction to two decades of well-intentioned but often incoherent efforts to deal with homelessness at the federal, state, and local levels. And it's merely the beginning. According to the new doctrine, providers that offer only a cot or a warm meal are clearly out of fashion. The new emphasis (even though it has been around for a long time) is "permanent supportive housing," with on-site support staff, including nurses and counselors, available around the clock. Cities that don't follow the program can expect to be snubbed, much as San Francisco was for the current fiscal year based on its adherence (or lack thereof) to the new dogma during the last year of Willie Brown's tenure as mayor. During a round of grants announced in December, the feds doled out more money for Alameda County than for San Francisco, which has more than twice as many chronically homeless people.

But there's a serious rub with the new-think.

Despite Mangano's rhetoric, the Bush administration is giving only lip service to funding the lofty (and, in the long run, adherents say, cheaper) goal of providing supportive housing as a substitute for the patchwork of services that has failed to dent homelessness in the last 20 years. In fact, by targeting scarce resources on chronically homeless people, critics say, the new approach amounts to a mirage. For even as the Bush team has become hip to sweeping the streets of the most worrisome offenders, it is dramatically scaling back the Section 8 federal rent-subsidy program that prevents many poor people who are living on the margins from falling into homelessness. The unwelcome implication is that Newsom, greeted with a $352 million budget deficit as he entered the Mayor's Office, may find that he has little more than a rhetorical partner when it comes to raising the whopping $450 million needed to build -- let alone maintain -- enough new supportive housing to provide for the chronic homeless. That assumes that they number no more than 3,000. And it doesn't begin to address the impacts that a massive reallocation of scarce resources is likely to have on the rest of the city's army of destitute.

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Ron Russell

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