Morning in San Francisco

Posted: Sep 30, 2002 12:00 AM
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 the night. 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 changes." 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."