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San Francisco Rethinks Cash Aid to Homeless

Poverty: City generosity fuels alcohol and drug abuse, say those who push for far smaller payouts, more services.


SAN FRANCISCO — As other cities slashed cash payments to their homeless populations in recent years, San Francisco held out, living up to its national image as a city of compassion and tolerance.

But buffeted by the dot-com collapse and other economic woes, many San Franciscans today see themselves as America's last soft touch. Some say the city's reputation for generosity has made it a magnet for street dwellers, whose numbers fluctuate between 7,000 and 10,000. Tourism promoters complain that aggressive panhandlers are driving visitors away.

Recent public opinion polls show that a large majority of city residents favor a proposal on the fall ballot that would slash homeless general assistance payments to roughly one-fifth of what they are today.

Cities and states have been making payments to homeless people since the early 1980s, when their numbers began to rise dramatically. After the Clinton administration in 1996 started emphasizing housing and job training over such direct payments, many cities followed suit.

San Francisco voters list homelessness as by far the most serious problem facing the city. Two leading candidates for next year's mayoral election are sponsoring November initiatives to address the homelessness issue.

Attracting the most attention is an initiative proposed by San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom that would drastically reduce payments to single homeless adults. His measure--called Care Not Cash--would trim one of the country's most generous stipends from $320 a month to $59, and replace the cash with the promise of equivalent spending on housing and services.

In contrast, Los Angeles County, with the state's largest homeless caseload, currently dispenses $221 a month in general relief to individuals but limits the payments to eight months a year and imposes additional restrictions.

Most other counties, required by state law to provide support to the indigent, give out much less cash than San Francisco.

Supported by the city's business establishment and struggling tourism industry, Newsom, a Democrat who leads the polls among early mayoral favorites, argues that the flow of cash to a population wracked by drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness does more harm than good.

"We need to redefine our definition of compassion," said Newsom, who contends that the government is contributing to the city's alarming death rate among homeless people by supporting self-destructive habits.

Dr. Pablo Stewart, director of psychiatric services at San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, agreed, saying: "It is not only clinically incorrect but almost sadistic to give money on a regular basis to people who have a demonstrated inability to handle cash funds."

The Care Not Cash proposal has sparked a firestorm of protest among homeless rights groups, who see the effort as an attempt to do in San Francisco what New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani did in his much-publicized cleanup of Times Square, which rid much of the area of homeless people, partly by banning sidewalk bivouacs and expanding city-run shelters.

Accusing Newsom of trying to "Giuliani-ize" San Francisco, homeless advocate Paul Bodin contended that the main intent of the Care Not Cash movement is to make homeless people disappear from the streets.

Plan Called 'Heartless'

"The Newsom plan is heartless, ruthless and basically immoral," said Sister Bernie Galvin, a Roman Catholic nun who directs the Religious Witness With Homeless People advocacy group here.

Each summer, the 69-year-old Galvin, an Oklahoma native who came to San Francisco after working as a labor organizer and social activist in North Carolina and Texas, stages a memorial service for homeless people who die on city streets. In 1999, the count reached 169. Over the last 15 years, 1,843 homeless people have died on the streets, Galvin said.

Newsom, a 34-year-old restaurateur, argues that the high mortality rate is precisely the reason to cut cash payments.

"In nearly half these cases," Newsom wrote in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the cause of death was an overdose of drugs or alcohol. This is the cost of our failure: a toll of drugs, alcohol and death that is the shame of San Francisco."

Groups Protest

Protests by homeless advocacy groups, including the militant People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), have thwarted several of Newsom's public appearances, forcing the supervisor to leave under police escort.

But his stand on the issue has also won Newsom widespread support.

Nearly 75% of San Francisco voters favor his Care Not Cash initiative, according to a July survey conducted by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates for the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

The same poll showed Newsom, with 36% support, leading his closest two potential rivals, Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, with 23%, and state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, with 6%.

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