[Hpn] SF Bay Guardian: Shelter shuffle

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Wed, 02 Apr 2003 15:01:19 -0800


Shelter shuffle

Sup. Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash program, packaged as an expansion of
services for the homeless, is kicking into gear, and it just might bump
thousands of people out of the city shelter system.

By Rachel Brahinsky

IT TOOK EIGHT days of tough traveling for Maximino Gabrales and his two
companions to make it over the mountains of Mexico and across the U.S.
border to catch a bus up north to San Francisco. On a recent cool evening in
front of the city's Multi-Service Center South homeless shelter, Gabrales
stood waiting for a bed for the night, wearing jeans, work boots, and one
black winter glove.

He probably found a place to sleep that night, and told us that in the past
he could usually access emergency shelter when he needed it. But in a few
months, when Sup. Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash program for the homeless is
fully underway, it's likely to be a completely different story.

The 42-year-old Gabrales lived in San Francisco for eight months last year,
sleeping under an overpass extension of the Bay Bridge. "If you have a good
blanket, it's not too cold," he said in Spanish, rubbing his head with his
gloved hand. "When it rains I come over here [to the shelter] to sleep if I
can." 

Unwittingly, Gabrales has rejoined the ranks of the city's street population
at a time that's even more turbulent than usual for the homeless. While the
public eye is trained almost exclusively on the war in Iraq, the city is
scurrying to craft programs to comply with Care Not Cash. Newsom is counting
on the program's success as he runs for mayor this year. (He is reportedly
proposing another antihomeless ballot measure to further buoy his campaign.
This time he's attacking panhandlers even as he solicits funds for his
mayoral bid.) 

The initiative, which passed overwhelmingly last fall, was pitched as a
means to end homeless deaths by drug overdose. It promised to transform the
city's homeless welfare plan, converting cash assistance into vouchers for
food, housing, and other services.

But to make it work, the Department of Human Services is planning to give
shelter-bed priority to homeless people on the welfare plan. Those who
aren't eligible, like Gabrales, may soon be edged out  and very possibly
left to sleep in the streets.

Care Not Cash "focuses the attempts to deal with homelessness on fewer than
3,000 people [on the city welfare plan], when there are 12,000 to 15,000
homeless," Sister Bernie Galvin, who heads Religious Witness with Homeless
People, told us. The city estimates there are closer to 8,000 homeless.
Either way, "There isn't going to be any consideration of the larger
homeless community," she said.

Tempting rhetoric, bad formula

Take a walk down Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin and you'll get a fair
glimpse of what spurred Newsom's Care Not Cash campaign. Drugs are openly
sold and used, prostitution is common, and broken liquor bottles fleck the
cracked sidewalks. 

In that context, the Care Not Cash rhetoric is tempting: instead of handing
out cash to the homeless, who might use it for booze and smack, offer them
counseling, housing, and food.

But homeless advocates charge that the Care Not Cash formula is based on
fuzzy math: they say the city can't provide care to every person with the
available funds. 

The city's estimated $347 million budget shortfall isn't helping. But in any
year  even without looming budget cuts  it would be difficult to make the
Care Not Cash formula stick.

That's because its main funding source is the welfare benefits currently
doled out to approximately 2,700 homeless clients of the County Adult
Assistance Program, known as CAAP. Under Care Not Cash benefit checks
currently ranging from $320 to $359 will be pared down to $59. So for each
CAAP recipient that's given "care," the city keeps about $300.

DHS officials won't say exactly how many clients will be able to take
advantage of the care-for-cash trade, and therefore can't say how large the
program budget will be. The estimate given at planning meetings held during
the past few months has been about $14 million.

But the program still doesn't seem to add up. For example, DHS says cash
benefits will be used to expand subsidized housing programs; DHS plans to
create as many as 1,000 new units over the next year. But while the city
will retain about $300 from each client, it takes an average of $600 to pay
for a room in a subsidized single-room-occupancy hotel. So for every two
clients in a shelter, there's only enough money to provide housing for one
in a hotel  and housing isn't the only service promised.

DHS spokesperson Maureen Davidson said the city General Fund will help cover
the difference  but it's unclear how much is available, given this year's
budget crunch. 

So until there's enough permanent housing in San Francisco, DHS is planning
to consider beds in the emergency shelter system "housing."

Annabrooke Temple, who is director of the General Assistance Advocacy
Project and has been monitoring DHS's planning process, said that's a
problem. Care Not Cash "supposedly guarantees housing, but all they have to
give you is a bed on a shelter floor," she said.

And when it comes to shelter beds, DHS director Trent Rhorer reported at a
recent Chamber of Commerce meeting: the city is going to reserve the city's
1,489 shelter beds for its 2,700 welfare clients  apparently because that's
the only way to fund the program.

Non-CAAP shelter users will be phased out of the shelter system at least for
the time being, Davidson told us in an e-mail. But she insisted that nobody
will be denied shelter because new hotel housing would soon be available.

The move to push CAAP recipients into the shelters will have a ripple effect
on the city's entire homeless population. But undocumented immigrants,
short-term homeless, the working poor, and the severely mentally ill either
aren't eligible for CAAP or have trouble meeting the requirements to stay on
the welfare program. Currently, DHS says, less than half of those who use
the shelters are CAAP clients. In order to reap anywhere near $14 million,
DHS will likely have to fill 70 to 100 percent of the shelter beds with CAAP
recipients, according to its own accounting.

"They want as many welfare recipients in the shelters as possible so they
can claim [Care Not Cash] is a success," said Jennifer Friedenbach, who has
been monitoring the city's planning meetings for the Coalition on
Homelessness. 

This is a major policy shift. "You have an emergency shelter system that's
supposed to be for emergencies," Friedenbach said. "The people most in need
are supposed to get priority."

Steve Bingham, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, which offers help to
low-income people, said the future looks grim. "If a CAAP-only population in
the shelters means these different people have no place to go, we haven't
solved the homeless problem, and we may have made it worse by leaving the
most [vulnerable] people in the street," he said.

Unanswered questions

Many other elements of the Care Not Cash program are still in flux.
Originally, Rhorer introduced a plan to fingerprint all shelter residents.
After community groups protested, he modified the proposal. Now all
shelter-bed seekers will have their fingers "read" by a scanning machine. If
a person's print is already on file (which is the case with most welfare
clients), the person will be recognized by the system. If not, the
fingerprint won't be recorded.

Even so, that's a recipe for scaring away undocumented immigrants, said
Renee Saucedo, an immigrant attorney and director of the San Francisco Day
Labor Program. 

"DHS says it's for security and to monitor duplication. But [this], for the
undocumented community, will deter folks from getting to shelters," she
said. 

A proposal to put metal detectors in three shelters is still under debate
and has been criticized as a poor use of limited funds.

There's also concern about how seriously DHS is taking input from the
nonprofits involved in advisory planning sessions.

"A lot of ideas that have been put forth by advocates have made their way
into decision-making process  but it seems like kind of a crapshoot as to
whether things will be taken into consideration," Temple said. "A lot of
people do make suggestions repeatedly. Sometimes it shows up in the minutes,
sometimes it doesn't. It seems like there's some selective hearing going
on." 

Overshadowing it all is the fact that less than three months before Care Not
Cash's July 1 implementation deadline, DHS still can't provide precise data
on how much will be spent on services, how much new housing will be built
(and how it will be funded), and how imminent city budget cuts might limit
the program. 

We pressed Davidson for specific details, but she said it's too early to
have hard numbers. "The motorcycle we're riding on is still being built,"
she said. "Don't you see the sincerity of the process?"

The Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee holds a hearing this week on Care
Not Cash's implementation. Wed/1, 9:30 a.m., City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B.
Goodlett Place, Room 263, S.F. (415) 554-4447.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky

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