On a Sunday morning at Mission and Fifth Streets in San
Francisco, a ragged woman sleeping on the sticky sidewalk slowly lifts her
head. Her mouth suddenly jerks open as she realizes where and how she spent
She jumps up in a state of panic, runs a few feet one way, then
the other. She scurries to a curbside tree, rearranges her clothes as she
squats, then urinates.
When did I see that? A year ago? Two? It's now etched in my
memory as a wretched, sordid tale of the city.
Supervisor Gavin Newsom and I walk by that same miserable spot
as he discusses Proposition N, the measure on San Francisco's November
ballot that he's dubbed "Care Not Cash" because it would reduce monthly
General Assistance checks to $59 from about $395, and compel some 2,500 of
the city's homeless to accept services -- a bed in a shelter or a drug
program -- in lieu of the old cash payment.
"More is not always better," Newsom had told The San Francisco
Chronicle editorial board earlier that day. More isn't better when
recipients use cash benefits to fuel their own destruction. After
researching other cities, Newsom is convinced no reform of homeless policies
will work without first cutting cash benefits.
Newsom has confronted the special city's special conceit --
that giving money to self-destructive people is compassionate. Dr. Pablo
Stewart of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic says that when he first
heard Newsom propose Prop. N, he had one question: "What took you so long?"
Stewart wants to see an end to the painful cycle that revolves
around General Assistance check disbursement on the first and 15th days of
the month. Addicts would "smoke their check in a day or two," then find
themselves ready for drug treatment. Many enter substance-abuse programs
only to leave when the next check comes. As far as Stewart is concerned,
cash grants have "led to people leaving the programs."
"If the GA checks were just stopped," said Stewart, "it is my
opinion that things would be better."
Cash grants also violate the social contract with citizens who
work hard, pay taxes and struggle to buy or rent their piece of heaven by
the Bay, only to find, one day, someone defecated on their doorstep. Or left
used needles. And the worst of it is that their tax dollars have paid to
degrade their lives.
Opposition to Proposition N is fierce. Critics say it doesn't
guarantee care in lieu of cash. But Newsom notes that the measure
specifically states that if the city can't provide, say, a spot at a
shelter, it will have to give cash. So, "If we're wrong, then nothing
Supervisor Tom Ammiano has introduced a spoiler measure,
Proposition O. Without stipulating how it would be funded, the measure
promises more housing and drug treatment. Sounds great, except that Ammiano
clearly hasn't learned from the lesson of former Mayor Art Agnos, whose
philosophy on homelessness turned Civic Center into the seedy "Camp Agnos."
On Wednesday, Sister Bernie Galvin, who heads Religious Witness
with Homeless People, told The Chronicle that Proposition N is wrong because
it doesn't guarantee care and takes away cash. The answer, she and three
like-minded clerics agreed, is "permanent housing."
In short, Religious Witness with Homeless People believes the
government should give people anything they might need.
The city needs people like Galvin, who can look beyond the
squalor and minister to the needy soul behind it. City government, however,
has to be realistic in dealing with homelessness.
Give addicts checks and they'll buy drugs or booze. Give them
money for housing, and they'll spend it on crack, then sleep on someone
else's doorstep. Give out more cash than other counties, and it's only
reasonable that you will have more people who don't use city toilets and
don't respect city laws.
As Newsom said earlier, "More is not always better."