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?

As noble and intelligent as the goal of moving the chronically homeless into supportive housing may appear, there are gaping inconsistencies within the strategy. For one thing, concentrating resources on the chronic homeless (which in San Francisco's case is more like 30 percent, as compared to the 10 percent typical of most cities) raises concerns that many of the rest of the homeless will be left to fend for themselves. Critics say the new approach will end up merely swapping one population of chronically homeless people for another.

More important, the Bush administration isn't putting its money where its rhetoric is. Although homelessness spending for the 2004 fiscal year will top $1.3 billion -- the most ever, as the administration points out -- that appropriation masks an administration proposal to slash $1.6 billion from the federal Section 8 rent-subsidy program considered by even some of Mangano's most ardent supporters as vital to keeping people on the fringes of poverty from becoming homeless.

"Trying to end chronic homelessness in the absence of ending overall homelessness I'm afraid simply won't work," says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the group Susan Baker co-chairs. She counts herself among Mangano's admirers. "I don't fault Phil for this. I think he's doing the best he can. But there is a real disconnect between Phil's efforts and the administration's willingness to adequately fund what he is talking about."

Home of the Homeless: San Francisco has the 
highest proportion of chronically homeless people of 
any U.S. city.
Paolo Vescia
Home of the Homeless: San Francisco has the highest proportion of chronically homeless people of any U.S. city.
As Newsom focuses on the 3,000 to 5,000 "chronics," 
the price tag will be steep.
Paolo Vescia
As Newsom focuses on the 3,000 to 5,000 "chronics," the price tag will be steep.

Newsom wasn't the first big-city mayor to take up the Mangano mantra. By the time he took office in January, more than five dozen mayors -- many of them fellow Democrats -- had already authorized their own 10-year plans aimed at the chronic homeless. (To date, the count stands at 117.) But Newsom may be the homelessness czar's most prized teammate. "From the moment the mayor and I first met, we both agreed that new ideas are as important as new funding," Mangano says. "This is one of those times where partnership trumps partisanship."

Although Mangano is encouraging cities and counties throughout the country to take the 10-year pledge, with the implication being that those that do not can forget about new federal funds coming their way, there's nothing to suggest that Newsom is anything but a true believer. "The mayor is firmly dedicated to the idea that focusing on the chronic homeless is the way to go and that supportive housing is the answer," says Angela Alioto.

Within weeks of taking office Newsom appointed the 33-member 10-Year Plan Council to devise what is expected to be his official blueprint for solving the homeless problem. Since March the group has convened most Friday afternoons in a packed conference room next to the mayor's office on the second floor of City Hall, with Alioto presiding. Its report is due to be unveiled at the end of this month.

Noting San Francisco's dubious distinction as having the highest proportion of chronically homeless street people of any city in the nation, Mangano sees the city as a "tipping point" in conquering the problem nationally. "It's a top tourist destination. It's a top convention destination," he says. "I know for a fact that if we can make a visible difference in the streets of San Francisco, the ripples will spread throughout the country."

He has been here three times since January to confer with Newsom. They've huddled twice in Washington, once before and once after Newsom's inauguration, and another half-dozen times by phone. Newsom was a key pitchman in April during a telephone conference of mayors arranged by Mangano to exhort members of Congress to cough up more money for the Samaritan Initiative, Bush's much-trumpeted new program aimed at the chronic homeless.

The Mangano influence doesn't stop there. He and Alioto, the mayor's point person in devising San Francisco's 10-year plan, confer almost daily. "Phil's a godsend; he walks on water," she enthuses. Indeed, to talk to Alioto is amazingly akin to talking to Mangano. They even use the same anecdotes. "Let me tell you about San Diego," she says, launching into how just 15 chronically homeless people there were discovered to have cost the city $2 million in a recent year. It's a parable Mangano is equally fond of sharing.

Alioto clearly takes her job as the Newsom homelessness czar seriously. "I'm absolutely focused on the 3,000," she says, referring to the most often-used figure of how many chronically homeless people the city has. "I'm not going to rest until we end homelessness in the city of St. Francis. I'm dedicated to that."

Details about the forthcoming 10-year plan are under wraps, but there is little doubt that it will be compatible with the Mangano line in proposing a dramatic reordering of how the city spends homelessness money, with the emphasis on supportive housing. Indeed, one such housing component administered by the city, called Direct Access to Housing -- with 400 units scattered among several formerly ramshackle hotels and complete with the requisite team of on-site counselors -- has already elicited the czar's praise.

But knowing what works is easier than making it work. Already, Newsom's housing efforts have run up against a wall, with his opponents on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors having apparently succeeded in preventing his touted housing bond initiative, which would have included $85 million to house the homeless, from qualifying for the November ballot. His homelessness program faces the same boulder on the tracks that critics predict will derail the Mangano agenda. "Where's the money going to come from?" asks Paul Boden, director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and an outspoken member of the 10-Year Plan Council. ("I'm the designated asshole," he says of his role with the group.)

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