Discussing Matrix the other day, Mayor Frank Jordan made the program sound like a misunderstood child. “The media and the advocates have misinformed the public,” Jordan griped. “Matrix isn't just a police program. We have social workers getting people into treatment and housing.”
Expect Jordan to reprise this message on the campaign hustings as he seeks re-election this year. In the jujitsu of political campaigns, Jordan will attempt to convince voters that the Matrix program he established 21 months ago to combat homelessness stands as a compassionate welfare response that rivals the best efforts of the Great Society.
But despite the mayor's obfuscations and the social workers' genuine efforts, Matrix is the same as it ever was: a focused police effort to drive homeless people out of town.
Consider the latest statistics, released last week by the police, social service and health departments: After more than 9,500 contacts with homeless people, Matrix's seven (count 'em, seven) outreach workers have steered a mere 211 people into permanent housing. Only 55 found their way into outpatient mental-health and substance-abuse clinics. Meanwhile, police have arrested or cited more than 22,000 people for so-called quality-of-life crimes such as urinating in public or sleeping in parks. Most of the citations have been ignored by those charged, transforming them into arrest warrants.
These statistics reveal Matrix for what it truly is: a triumph in the politics of illusion. After careful honing, the program has become a panacea Jordan can exploit with equal effectiveness before both liberals and conservatives; it's a social program and a crime-fighting tool. Never mind that it's a failure on both counts.
To be fair, Jordan isn't the first mayor to retreat into symbolic gestures in the face of homelessness. By the end of his tenure, Mayor Art Agnos, who had a sincere interest in resolving the problem, was a pitiful figure, carting around a mockup of his award-winning plan “Beyond Shelter” to political groups and editorial boards as the situation on the streets grew ever worse.
Ultimately, big-city mayors don't have the resources to attack the myriad social ills behind homelessness: alcohol and drug abuse; the decline of single-room-occupancy housing; the repercussions of deinstitutionalization. The only viable roles remaining to mayors like Jordan are those of welfare distributor, shelter provider and cop.
The hollowness of Mayor Jordan's humanitarian spin was more than evident last Friday afternoon as a team of Matrix social workers patrolled the Upper Haight. Hunter Mills and Paul Martin of the Department of Social Services and Antje Archibald of the health department's mental-health division converged at the corner of Haight and Ashbury to talk to a familiar client, a fortysomething homeless alcoholic.
After Mary (not her real name) refused to enter detox, Hunter and she sang a few couplets from a show tune. But Mary soon forgot the words, her brain addled by too many years of hard drinking and street life. Her thoughts then wandered off to another subject: the police. “I've got 22 warrants,” she said. “I don't do nothin' but these damn cops keep saying they got to make their quota.”
Mary is so frightened of police that she said she tripped and skinned her knee when she saw an officer earlier in the day. She peeled back a child's novelty sticker from her thermal leggings and exposed the blood stain to Mills. He rummaged through his backpack for an alcohol pad; there were condoms and sunscreen, but no disinfectant. Archibald handed Mary a few packets of antibacterial cream.
Later in the day, Mills sat down on the sidewalk next to Charlie Hover, an admitted convicted drug dealer and former addict who spends his days killing time and pain with booze. “You want to go to detox?” the social worker asked in a delicate, unthreatening manner.
“No, I'm just going to sit here and drink myself to death,” Hover declared without emotion. “It's my choice.”
“That's right,” Archibald put in.
By the end of the day, the team had handed out a grand total of one housing voucher, good for a few days at a run-down single-room-occupancy hotel in the Mission. “The cockroaches outnumber the tenants,” Mills said.
No one is faulting the outreach teams for their dismal record. In addition to Matrix, the city hosts some 20 outreach programs — most run by nonprofits — and they all face the same harsh reality: The number of homeless so overwhelms the city's bulwark of low-income housing, shelter and clinical services that street outreach is, at best, an exercise in wishful thinking. What irks advocates for the poor is that Jordan is bundling liberal programs developed long before he was elected and calling the amalgam “Matrix” in order to perpetuate the illusion that the homeless are well cared for. Rather than build a more effective system of government assistance, the mayor and supervisors have cut social service budgets every year since 1992.
The majority of the 211 people who were housed through Matrix were simply referred to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Conard House, two nonprofits that have placed the homeless in housing for more than a decade. Of the 2,000 mental-health and substance-abuse interventions recorded by Matrix social workers, 1,774 were informational — the homeless were merely told what services were available. Additionally, 142 were ordered into involuntary 72-hour stays at a psychiatric facility. But due to budget cuts and the burgeoning number of homeless, most treatment programs are burdened with lengthy waiting lists.
Meanwhile, Jordan has ordered that Matrix referrals get first priority in the allocation of precious shelter beds and housing slots, which makes the program appear effective. The Salvation Army reserves 40 beds for Matrix referrals, and Matrix referrals go to the head of the line at Conard House. The city's two largest shelters, the so-called Multi Service Centers, also give preferential treatment to Matrix. Meanwhile, hundreds of homeless not referred by Matrix go wanting.
“Once or twice a week my referrals get bumped by Matrix referrals,” said Kym Valadez of Swords to Plowshares, a homeless veterans group.
Welfare rights attorney Stephen Bingham charges that the mayor has made social workers into sales reps for a police crackdown.
“DSS and the health department came in like whores to justify the police action,” Bingham said last week at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing.
A few minutes before the end of her shift last Friday, Antje Archibald met with “Crazy Steve” Corie, the son of a San Bernardino Hells Angel who's been on the streets since he turned 17. Corie's sole income is his Haight Street minstrel act, but he says the police kept rousting him (and confiscating his guitar) until they forced him off Haight and into the park. There he tried to sell a bag of marijuana to make some money and was arrested. Fresh out of San Bruno jail, Corie returned to Haight Street this month, and the cops resumed their move-it-along routine.
“I'm taking off for Oregon,” Corie told Archibald, walking away.
“He doesn't have any mental-health problems,” Archibald said. “Just a lot of anger. But then again, I'd be upset too if the police did that to me.” Jordan promotes Matrix as a social program and a crime-fighting tool. Never mind that it's a failure on both counts.