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Thursday, June 17, 2004

SF Homelessness - 3rd Rail Unplugged

Anytime a sea change occurs, the people who live through it have a tough time remembering the days before things were suddenly different.

Such is the political situation with homelessness in San Francisco. Not long ago, homelessness was considered an intractable problem. Camp Agnos had diffused throughout the city of St. Francis, turning downtown into a column of shopping carts and sprawled-out near corpses.

The shame of San Francisco was spread by souvenirs of horror stories told across the globe. Socially, if not medically, San Francisco's epidemic of homelessness had reached critical condition.

Politically, addressing the homelessness crisis was the third rail of San Francisco politics. Mayor Willie Brown had all but given up on the problem, things were getting noticeably worse, and the lobby for homelessness would extract political retribution from anyone fool enough to try and find an answer to the problem. Seizing every victory as a justification to go further, the homeless lobby was now advocating for social acceptance of the problem, not for solutions.

The "smart" position was to complain about a lack of state and federal resources while pacifying the poverty pimps with increased cash handouts and support for their institutionalization of the sidewalk home. Politicians worried about other issues and the homeless kept spending their public drug allowance and kept dying on the streets.

When Gavin Newsom chose to kiss the third rail to position himself to run for mayor, it was widely interpreted as political suicide. Hell, I told him he was crazy and I'd been itchen to see him elected mayor since I managed his parks package in 2000. But Gavin took on the problem and ran a top-knotch campaign to systematically reform San Francisco's approach to issue. Instead of treating the symptoms, Gavin was determined to cure the disease by providing housing and services to the homeless. When the poverty lobby beat him at the Board of Supervisors, Newsom took his Care Not Cash proposal directly to the electorate.

The poverty-pimps defensively reacted and mounted a dangerously divisive campaign. With the fury of zealots, they attacked Newsom personally, vilified his family, friends, businesses, and anyone with the courage to say that "the City that knows how" could be doing more. In short, they waged total war against Newsom because he had the gall to remove try to remove the issue for which they advocated.

Care Not Cash won in a landslide. The debate over homelessness changed. It was no longer a question about how large the handout should be, it was now a question of how to provide services in-lieu of cash handouts. Since they had been crushed at the polls, the rants by the Gavin-haters also changed to allegations the voters had been fooled as they attempted to spin their way out of the hole. Yet Newsom had seized enough political ground to fundamentally change the debate and advance an empirically proven plan for reform.

Having won at the Board but lost at the ballot, the poverty pimps moved took the issue to the courts were they achieved initial success when they convinced a Superior Court judge to punt the measure on a technicality. Now, the Newsom-haters tactics dramatically changed. They quit attacking the merits of Care Not Cash and instead blasted Newsom personally for pushing an "illegal" initiative. [Focusing on the legal issues set them up for public embarrassment when Care Not Cash was reinstated on appeal. As we will likely see again with the gay marriage situation, the wonkish Newsom didn't bother to remind his adversaries of their public blunder.]

So Newsom took issue back to the Board, this time with the unequivocally support of San Francisco. Within days, 600 supporters mobilized for an emergency rally on a weekday afternoon to support Newsom, reform, and the will of the voters. Care Not Cash was watered down, but it finally passed. Having now won at the ballot box and at the Board of Supervisors, Newsom ended up sweeping the series when Care Not Cash was reinstated on appeal.

Now we have the next chapter in the story. It turns out, not only was Newsom right on the political and legal issues, but he was also right on the policy. As was reported in the Chronicle, the welfare rolls shrunk 17% in the first month since Care Not Cash took effect.

While homelessness hasn't been beaten, the "intractable" political situation has been bested. The poverty pimps have been proven wrong in every venue, depleting all the political capital they once held. Since the homelessness lobby had made bully tactics the staple of their existence, now that they are no longer feared their intimidation tricks are viewed by politicians, the media, and the citizens as irrelevant political theater.

Our homelessness problem is still severe and San Francisco has a long road ahead. But for the first time in a long time, the City is no longer walking backwards.

- Bob Brigham
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