During his Jan. 13 State of the City speech, Mayor Gavin Newsom depicted a city that would defy economic catastrophe and brush aside a projected $522 million deficit in order to somehow dramatically reduce homelessness during his final two years in office. "This was my passion when I got in," he said. "Now I am more passionate, more engaged, enthusiastic. I believe more in the power of possibility. I don't think we can solve this problem. I know we can solve this problem. ... I'm not asking for a third term. I will not leave office until we reduce the street population by half and we reduce the overall [homeless] population by at least a third. We have marked very specific goals into the new year."
Newsom did not provide specifics about how he would reduce the homeless population, nor where the money would come from to pay for whatever initiative he comes up with to achieve it.
This isn't surprising. During his six years as mayor, he has earned a reputation as someone willing to make dramatic, passionate statements about supposed plans to fix up public housing, upgrade public transportation, reform the civil service system, upgrade parks, or reduce homelessness, and then quickly turn away from his cause du jour as if he'd never said anything at all.
But the hollowness of Newsom's promises in last week's speech were stunning even by the mayor's standards. This time, it turns out, city officials were putting the lie to his words before they'd even left his mouth.
While Newsom was making ambitious promises about getting people off the streets, attorneys for the city were quietly fighting in court to preserve the city's right to cut the number of emergency shelter beds for homeless people by up to 25 percent.
By press time, the mayor's chief spokesman, Tony Winnicker, and Human Services Agency executive director Trent Rhorer had not returned calls requesting comment.
The battle over whether the city will be able to plug its 2010 budget hole by reducing shelter beds is happening in a somewhat unusual place: the U.S. District Court for Northern California.
Last year, the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates and the antipoverty group Western Regional Advocacy Project sued the city, alleging that Care Not Cash — the mayor's program to provide services and housing for the homeless — discriminates against elderly and disabled people. That's because it is based on reducing General Assistance grants to impoverished, able-bodied people in exchange for the promise of housing. Old or disabled people often depend on programs such as Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments, rather than county antipoverty grants. So the city and county of San Francisco doesn't have the same financial incentive to provide those people with housing. And according to the Western Regional Advocacy Project's complaint, they end up at the back of the line.
The City Attorney's office at first responded to the complaint by denying there was any policy to discriminate. But by December, it looked like an agreement was in place: The plaintiffs would drop their case in exchange for a promise from the city not to cut emergency shelter funding during 2010. The tentative agreement would have preserved shelter beds for all homeless people, not just the elderly or disabled.
This appeared to be a meager settlement in light of the discrimination allegations. But attorneys felt that in this moment of a half-billion-dollar city budget deficit, preserving shelter beds would be a valuable victory.
According to filings by Disability Rights Advocates attorney Sid Wolinsky, however, in mid-December the city turned 180 degrees and decided to abort the agreement. "Because of budget cuts, the city no longer would agree to provisions in the settlement agreement maintaining the number of shelter beds," wrote Wolinsky, who would not comment on the case for this story. Instead, he wrote, the City Attorney's office attempted to impose a different provision: The city "would be allowed to reduce shelter beds, drop-in chairs, and resource centers by up to 25 percent for one calendar year, i.e., the city would be free to eliminate 282 of the existing 1,126 shelter beds and 30 of the existing 118 drop-in spaces." Wolinsky said in filings that the city should be bound to the original agreement, which had been reported to the judge in the case.
Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, saw the move as betrayal. "I'm perfectly used to city reps and city bureaucracies lying to me," he said. "It was amazing to me that they would do it to a federal judge. ... Also, it begs the question of, 'Who's the least vulnerable when it comes to the kind of shit we're talking about?' That's always going to be the place of first cut." Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, would not comment on the case other than to say that subsequent filings will demonstrate that the city disagrees with Wolinsky's assertions. Attorneys for the city acknowledged in court papers that settlement talks had broken down.
In the world of services to the homeless, rumors of such cuts have already been traveling: Word on the street has been that cuts might fall on the Sanctuary Shelter, a 198-bed facility on Eighth Street run by Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco at a cost to city government of more than $5 million per year. "Shelter providers are needing to be hypervigilant to preserve funding levels that will keep us at 24-hour access," said Karen Gruneisen, associate director of Episcopal Community Services.
Making extravagant promises or claims with no intention of following through on them seems to have become something of a game for San Francisco's mayor. He campaigned on a promise to build work-force housing along the Central Waterfront, then quietly told backers post-election that he'd abandoned the plan. He spent six years swearing up and down he'd fix public housing; it isn't fixed yet. He's made "accountability" a stump-speech perennial. But as Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi reported in these pages last month ["The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.," 12/16/09], this has meant publishing mountains of meaningless data that actually obscure what government is or is not accomplishing.
But in making an implausible promise in his State of the City speech to provide shelter for half of the thousands of poor people who live on the streets — and making that promise just as city officials take steps in the opposite direction — Newsom seems to stray from gamesmanship toward cynicism.
"That's San Francisco government right there for you," Boden said. "What they say they want to do and want to achieve, and what they actually do in terms of funding priorities, have, since 1983 in San Francisco, been opposite. And if you don't have treatment, you don't have housing, and you're cutting emergency services again, the only tool left is a Greyhound bus ticket or the cops."