Hand-out city

Posted: Apr 08, 2003 12:00 AM

San Francisco ought to be known as the city that surrendered -- surrendered to the homeless, surrendered to panhandlers and then gave up on taking on the slow but steady spread of blight across this otherwise stunningly beautiful city.

It's the rare politician who risks the nasty opposition of vocal advocates for the Special City's dysfunctional population. Supervisor Gavin Newsom sponsored Care Not Cash, a homeless reform measure designed to push some General Assistance recipients into housing. Former Mayor Frank Jordan also had supported ballot measures to curb aggressive panhandling and move homeless aid recipients into housing.

Voters approved those measures, but then city politicians contrived to undermine the voters' will by throwing up bureaucratic roadblocks. Why not? There would be no citizen revolt. Taxpayers in San Francisco don't even expect city politicians to pay attention to their vote.

It's easier to just keep walking past the proffered frying pans, paper cups and extended palms that intrude on working people's lives and have turned busy sidewalks into obstacle courses.

Critics charge that Supervisor Newsom's mayoral aspirations are behind his new proposal to curb aggressive panhandling.

What a town. A city pol tries to do something about the pall cast over downtown -- and his motivation is dismissed as venal ambition.

It's a message the panhandling apologists have instilled in many San Franciscans: Panhandlers who want something for nothing, good. Politicians who want pleasant streets for the citizenry, greedy.

Consider Newsom's nascent proposal: He wants to ban panhandling on highway ramps, on median strips, near ATMs and in parking garages. For that mild reform, he is vilified.

Newsom also proposes reducing the punishment for aggressive panhandling by changing it to an infraction from a misdemeanor. The idea is to improve the likelihood that S.F.'s district attorney -- currently, Terence "Fluffy" Hallinan -- might actually prosecute those arrested.

Newsom notes how other cities have gotten a handle on their homeless and panhandling populations. (The two populations, it should be noted, are not the same. A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice paper reported that only a "small percent of homeless people panhandle.")

While panhandlers seem to be on every corner, Newsom isn't daunted. The problem, he said, is "disproportionately visible and irritating, and easily identifiable," but he thinks the "net numbers of individuals" aren't as challenging as one might think.

Newsom also has proposed a provision that allows the public to give "basic-needs coupons that can be given to panhandlers in lieu of cash" and redeemed for food, clothing, medicine and other basic necessities.

I understand why Newsom suggests coupons instead of cash, but it makes more sense to urge residents and visitors to give their cash to charities that provide sustenance and services to those who need them. Charities won't swap clothes for drugs.

Newsom says he wants "education" to be a visible component in his measure -- that's a diplomatic way of saying what the DOJ stated more bluntly: "Panhandlers are drawn to communities where both free social services and generous passers-by are plentiful."

Also, panhandlers are likely to spend the money on substances that aren't good for them -- drugs, alcohol and junk food. Thus people who give money to panhandlers aren't helping the guy with his palm out -- or the city. It's feel-good, do-bad compassion.

Newsom remembers a local panhandler who recently died from a drug overdose. "The person who gave Joe that last dollar probably drove away feeling good about themselves."