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?

The $450 million price tag associated with creating enough supportive housing for 3,000 street people assumes that the city builds half the units and leases the other half in buildings modified for the purpose. That's just to establish the units. Officials estimate it will take another $30 million a year to maintain them. Those kinds of numbers easily swamp the $85 million included in Newsom's hoped-for November housing bond, even if he had been able to get it before voters. "The housing bond is critical," says Trent Rhorer, the Human Services director. As for Boden's question about where the money is to come from, he says, "The short answer is that it's going to be a long process."

A favorite refrain of those in the mayor's camp who say it can be done is to point to New York as an example. Before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "tough love" approach to clearing the streets of homeless people got under way in the early 1990s, New York -- not San Francisco -- was considered the national capital of homelessness. Now, despite having a population 10 times as large, it has fewer people living on the streets than San Francisco. The Big Apple, with only twice as many street people as San Francisco when the transformation began, spends $1 billion a year on helping its homeless, providing either supportive housing or a shelter bed to practically everyone who wants it, dwarfing the $200 million San Francisco spends. New York gets $200 million a year in help from the state; San Francisco last year got just $6 million from the state of California.

Neither is Newsom likely to get much help from the feds, despite Mangano's cheerleading. The Samaritan Initiative, the administration's showcase program for its new approach, amounts to a mere $70 million. The effort begun in April by the mayors, including Newsom, has been aimed at getting $45 million added to it. "It's chicken feed," says Donald Whitehead of the National Alliance on Homelessness, the nation's oldest and largest homeless advocacy group. "And this is a three-year competitive grant program. So you're talking about the lucky winners among the nation's largest cities being dealt a few million dollars here and a few million there. It's unconscionably paltry."

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.

Even Dennis Culhane, whose research provided the academic underpinning of the Bush "10-year plan" theme, is dubious. "I admire their attempting to bring efficiencies into the equation. But I fear it is little more than rearranging the lifeboats. Talking about eradicating homelessness is great, but if the resources aren't there, it's all sound and fury."

Meanwhile, as he attempts to deliver on expectations he helped to create, the new mayor has one thing working in his favor: the dismal track record of everyone who has preceded him at City Hall in the Age of Homelessness. "The fact is Gavin Newsom is seen as the only politician willing to even try to solve this," says political consultant Mark Mosher. "He gets points from a lot of people on that basis alone." Mike Farrah, a senior adviser to Newsom, agrees, and insists that when it comes to homelessness, the mayor is in the saddle for the long haul. "In the end his administration won't be judged on gay marriage. It will be judged on what he's able to do with the budget and on homelessness."

As the sidewalk body counts of the future take shape, much depends on how many homeless people San Franciscans decide are too many.

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