Crossing their fingers that the most ambitious plan to address homelessness in decades would win voters’ approval in November, exhausted volunteers for the Our City, Our Home ballot measure smiled on Monday as they lugged boxes filled with 28,000 signatures into the Department of Elections.
Sick of waiting for the city to come up with the funds, homelessness advocates, small-business owners, and formerly unhoused people rallied to draft their own law. Under the optimistic title Our City, Our Home, the ballot measure would create a one half-percent tax on any business in San Francisco that makes more than $50 million annually. The number that qualify are higher than one might anticipate: more than 650 S.F. companies reportedly earn more than $25 million annually. It’s estimated that this tax would bring in around $380 million annually, a figure that would be added to the city’s current $300 million dedicated to homelessness and supportive housing, more than doubling the budget.
The power such money could have to fix the crises on city streets is monumental. A careful breakdown of the funds grants at least 50 percent to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to pay for the acquisition of single-room occupancy hotels, the construction and renovation of supportive-housing units, and for short-term rental subsidies, which are often used to help homeless people cover the costs of housing.
The Department of Public Health would receive at least 25 percent of the funds to create new mental-health services specifically designed for homeless people.
And another 10 percent would go to expanding navigation centers and hygiene programs such as Pit Stops and and Lava Mae.
All together, it’s estimated that Our City, Our Home could house at least 4,000 of the estimated 10,000 people currently living on San Francisco’s streets, create 1,000 new shelter beds in five years, and create support systems for those who currently fall through the cracks, such as homeless youth and the mentally ill.
The ballot measure seems like a no-brainer, and aside from those who run wealthy corporations, it’s hard to conceive of a reason why residents of San Francisco wouldn’t support it. Nevertheless, it almost failed before it started: A rush of ballot measures for November means that demand has skyrocketed for paid signature gatherers. As a result, the cost has risen to as much as $40 per signature in Mountain View, although it’s usually between $2 and $10 in San Francisco.
“About a week ago we started to panic,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “We had a plan for paid signature gatherers, but there were a lot of measures drawing the signature gatherers to other areas. We put out a call in San Francisco and there was a massive groundswell. We gathered over 8,000 signatures in the last week alone, and we’re turning in 28,000 signatures. We only needed 9,000 to qualify, but we kicked some ass out in the streets. San Francisco is ready for this.”
The herculean last-minute effort was aided by members of the Democratic Socialists of America, Supervisor Jane Kim, and District 6 candidate Matt Haney, all of whom knocked on doors and gathered outside supermarkets to get every signature they could.
“The Our City, Our Home November ballot proposal is the most comprehensive solution I have seen in a decade to end homelessness in the lives of adults and families in San Francisco,” Kim tells SF Weekly. “Experts, advocates, and on-the-ground workers spent months dreaming up a robust and thoughtful proposal. This will make a meaningful and noticeable dent on homelessness.”
While the backing of powerful politicians can be helpful for a grassroots campaign, the issue gets personal for volunteers who have lived on the streets in the past.
“About 35 years ago I was homeless on the streets of San Francisco,” says Joe Wilson, executive director of the homelessness advocacy center Hospitality House. “The way out and the journey back was a long and hard one, only made possible by building community, and people reaching out, and people caring, and people recognizing how important it is for everyone to have a place to be. We cannot rest as long as children sleep on the street, as long as families have no place to call home, as long as our brothers and sisters on the streets have broken dreams and broken lives in a city that pretends not to care.”
When reviewing the ways in which this measure could dramatically affect San Francisco’s homelessness crisis, one question inevitably bubbles to the surface: Why now? Couldn’t this have been instituted years ago, to prevent us reaching such catastrophic numbers of people living on our streets?
The answer lies in the repeal of a statewide tax law. In the past, any taxes levied by citizen initiatives had to secure a two-thirds vote of support, an intimidatingly high amount for any community-led measure with a small budget. Last year, California’s Supreme Court overturned that rule, stating that a simple majority of 50 percent or more would do the trick.
A win for grassroots organizers, it was immediately threatened. Large corporations — frequently the target of taxes from community-led ballot measures — fought to change the requirements back to the two-thirds majority. Big Soda led the charge, donating $7 million toward a ballot measure that would have hit voters in November.
In response, Governor Jerry Brown intervened, sort of. To strike the measure off the ballot, he passed a law blocking any counties or cities from taxing grocery items (which somehow includes soda) until 2031.
It’s a win and a loss, depending on how you look at it. But the looming threat of the repeal made homelessness activists act fast, as the window of time within which it would be possible to get such a plan passed with a simple majority of voters appeared to be closing. By the time Brown blocked the repeal, the measure was already underway.
In addition, no other ballot measures on the horizon appear to target the tax Our City, Our Home is, and there’s no poison pill hidden anywhere. If it gets a simple majority, it passes, simple as that.
Meanwhile, human-rights services are more threatened than ever.
The real focus is on “taking a small portion of the big corporate tax cuts back that the Trump administration gave to big businesses for critical services the federal government no longer funds,” says Upper Haight small-business owner Christin Evans, who’s listed as an author of the ballot measure. “The city has tried Sit/Lie. The city has tried policing. The city has tried tent sweeps. San Franciscans are ready to try housing. Housing for more than 2,000 schoolchildren, housing for families, housing for transitional-age youth, and housing for the mentally ill.”
And the signature gathering alone speaks to the likelihood of getting Our City, Our Home passed.
“I’ve been out there gathering signatures for the past few weeks. I can tell you that San Franciscans are really behind this measure,” Evans says. “We are a modern and progressive city, and we can show the country and the world that we know how to solve this problem. We are going to win in November.”
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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