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Homes Instead of Handouts

San Francisco's 'Care Not Cash' program slashes welfare checks to the homeless but gives them their own rooms and other support.

September 28, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The general manager of the Seneca Hotel tallied the property that was now Jose Salcedo's to use -- a bed, a chair, a dresser. To many, it might seem a paltry list. But to Salcedo, it was "a blessing."

Even if the room was smaller and darker than he had hoped, he had a door with a deadbolt lock. And a window -- onto an alley -- but a window nonetheless.

"This is going to help a lot," said Salcedo, a 34-year-old recovering addict who until recently slept in city shelters.

Salcedo is among more than 300 people who have moved into single-room-occupancy hotels in San Francisco as part of a program that uses sweeping welfare reform as a tool to combat homelessness.

Hundreds more have accepted a shelter bed with the promise of a private room in the future as the county revamps more buildings. By early next year, more than 1,300 rooms will have come on line -- ranking the effort as possibly the most aggressive to house the homeless in any city nationwide, experts say.

Held up by litigation, the "Care Not Cash" program finally began five months ago. It guts welfare grants in San Francisco -- which had offered the most generous cash benefits in the state.

Instead of receiving as much as $410 a month, most recipients now get just $62. In return, the recipients, who must be single and without children, are promised permanent housing in buildings staffed with case managers and roving medical teams. Welfare for families with children is governed by state and federal law and is not affected by Care Not Cash.

Counties across the country have slashed welfare grants. And growing numbers of cities have turned to so-called "supportive" housing -- which links housing with mental health, addiction and other services -- as a cure for homelessness. But Care Not Cash is the first to use welfare dollars to finance supportive housing.

As a combined city and county, San Francisco has the freedom to experiment. (Counties administer welfare.) And in 36-year-old Gavin Newsom, the city has a mayor who has made eradicating San Francisco's in-your-face homeless problem a top priority.

"If this really goes to scale in San Francisco, that's going to be a more systematic approach to 'housing first' than other places have implemented yet," said Nan Roman, president of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. "It's a significant development and the city is to be applauded. They could have just said, 'We'll give you a shelter bed,' and they didn't."

But critics say Care Not Cash could harm more homeless people than it helps. There is no guarantee of housing, and how long some will have to wait in a shelter before a unit becomes available remains unclear.

Welfare recipients in Father Louis Vitale's shelter at St. Boniface Church are "wigged out" now that their income has evaporated, Vitale said. The neighborhood has seen increased car break-ins, and a colleague told Vitale that young homeless men on Polk Street are turning more tricks to make a buck -- and feed their drug habits.

Also, paying for housing units such as Salcedo's costs more than twice the savings from one reduced welfare check. For the program to pencil out, officials said, the rolls of homeless people on welfare had to shrink by more than a fourth by next year.

Already, the rolls have plummeted by 35%. Officials say that drop proves what they have long suspected -- that many recipients in San Francisco were not homeless at all, but traveled from nearby communities to cash in on the city's liberal largess.

"We've exceeded expectation," Newsom said. "I say that with cautious optimism because the goal is not to just reduce the rolls. The goal is to convert the cash to help turn people's lives around by giving them adequate services."

However, evidence suggests that mistrust of the system and an aversion to even short-term stays in city shelters also contribute to the decline. Nearly two-thirds of the homeless people offered a shelter bed while their rooms are readied have refused help and no longer receive welfare. That probably leaves many on the streets.

"I'll only take housing. I won't take shelter," explained Bill S., 41, who lined up to collect his benefits this month at a check-cashing outlet. "You can catch bugs, flu, sickness and you don't know who you're going to meet."

Bill's cash benefits will soon be drastically cut from $330 to $62 a month, once check-cashing fees are deducted. Rather than comply with welfare requirements such as job hunting and workfare to qualify for such a low sum, Bill said he'll quit welfare and continue to "sleep out," as he has for two years.

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