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May 04, 2005

Care Not Cash

Long before SF mayor Gavin Newsom became a liberal darling for decreeing gay marriage constitutional, he was a hated sleaze-ball with a too-perfect coif and a penchant for "DLC'ing" the poor. Evidence came through his signature initiative, Care Not Cash, which ended San Francisco's policy of handing checks to the homeless and plowed the savings into low-cost transitional housing offering an array of psychological and substance-abuse services. Most suspected the housing wouldn't work, wouldn't come online, or wouldn't be used, and the end result would simply be savings for the city and a worse lot for the poor. The suspicions provoked an outcry, and the outcry drove a strong Green Party challenge that almost denied Newsom the mayorship.

It was one of the more interesting intra-Democratic battles of recent years, very much akin to Clinton's welfare reform, though not done while held hostage to a Republican Congress. That meant Newsom had room to implement his policy as he wanted it and we can get a pretty good idea of how this sort of solution works. So*?

• 800 street people have been moved into "supporting housing" and general assistance rolls for the homeless have been slashed by 73%. That's a hell of a lot better than was expected, optimistic forecasts only saw a 50% reduction in the same timespan. It also means the program has more cash to put towards housing and services, as every dollar saved remains in the Care Not Cash system and is used to shelter more homeless.

• Many of the newly-housed have kept pan handling, as living on $59 a month is nearly impossible.

• It can take up to six months of shelter-living before you get housing.

• The housing, by general consensus, is great. Critics like it, the homeless love it, everyone agrees.

• The plan is focused on the chronically homeless, rather than those who crash with friends and are transient, but not constantly on the streets. That means those doing semi-okay are at a disadvantage compared to those truly living on the streets.

So on the plus side, the rooms are good, the homeless are using them, and the streets are gladly giving up some longtime residents. So far as the negatives go, the reduced checks aren't enough to live on, and more job training and placement is necessary. In addition, those who've been skating by but could use the assistance are being passed over in favor of those in tougher straits. My opinion? The program's a success, it's helping reduce the homeless population while giving a sense of dignity to some who've never had it before:

"I've been waiting four months for my room, and I'm getting it in a few days," said Brian Whitten, 47, at the Multi-Service Center South shelter. "I know it's hard to get by on $59 a month, but hell -- I want my first roof I've had a chance at for a bunch of years. I'll take care of the details once I'm in there."

That's as powerful an argument in favor as any I could think of. One thing about Care Not Cash and the better incarnations of Welfare Reform is that they take dignity seriously; they're consciously designed to integrate folks on the margins of society into America's ethos as well as it's wealth. Now, you can argue over whether or not that's a good thing, but it's an interesting component when compared to programs that do nothing save raising check recipients to a base level of subsistence. It's also something that liberalism, post-New Deal, kinda lost. Social Security was all over the idea of dignity in government help, but the battle's, at a certain point, lost the moral component and just kept fighting over the handout portion. Care Not Cash is a welcome departure from that sort of policy-making.

* Via Amy Alkon

May 4, 2005 in California | Permalink


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» San Francisco's Homeless from Political Animal
SAN FRANCISCO'S HOMELESS....Gavin Newsome is best known for promoting gay marriage as mayor of San Francisco. But among Bay Area denizens themselves, he's just as well known for promoting a new program for handling homelessness: "Care Not Cash" cut cas... [Read More]

Tracked on May 4, 2005 5:02:14 PM

» San Francisco Deals With Homelessness from Bloodless Coup
I just love Gavin Newsom. Sure, to audiences who watch The 700 Club he's the devil incarnate. But it's these kinds of not especially flashy solutions to deep, chronic societal problems that we need more of in this country.... [Read More]

Tracked on May 4, 2005 9:05:52 PM


hot damn!

Posted by: Andrew Cory | May 4, 2005 4:59:56 PM

The mayor's last name is 'Newsom' not 'Newsome.'

Posted by: michael | May 4, 2005 5:10:07 PM

Newsom still hasn't rolled out his plans for divesting from the 12 Galaxies, though.

Posted by: John G | May 4, 2005 5:17:59 PM

Why can't they use the cash from the reduced welfare percentage to pay more than $59?

Still, a great program. Dems should be all over this plan, since homelessness is a big issue in many places, and not just in major cities. My sister in a upper-class western suburb of Chicago now complains about the homeless in their small city center.

I wish Portland would get aboard this program because we have the dual homeless and spaging problem - particularly on freeway entrances.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 4, 2005 5:33:55 PM

It's definitely a great program, and it's made a noticeable difference on our streets - just not noticeable enough.

Part of the problem is that while there's already a long list for housing, the city is still allowing SRO's to be torn down, and local homeless advocates are still pretty enraged at the whole program - so there's not the co-operation from some of the organizations that could make the whole thing really work.

Before I move to San Francisco - I would have thought the whole thing was cruel. But the homeless problem here is really out of control, and extraordinary measure aren't out of line.

Posted by: Brew | May 4, 2005 6:11:59 PM

Don't worry. The "progressive" assholes in the SF Bay Guardian/Matt Gonzalez camp will find fault in Care Not Cash.

Posted by: Old Hat | May 4, 2005 6:44:16 PM

Try "neither care nor cash". The unstated assumption here is that because the numbers on the rolls are down, somehow life for the homeless has gotten better. To get that $59 per month (less than $2/day), a homeless person has to spend vast amounts of time with the city bureaucracy, time that could be spent panhandling or collecting cans instead. So the net effect is that instead of getting $59, many homeless people have decided to pass up the money, but Mayor Newsom can act as though he's decreased the number of homeless. And the housing, which is a good thing, doesn't go far enough, because, as Brew says, low income housing is disappearing as fast as the city can build it.

That's not to say that Newsom doesn't sincerely want to help with the homeless problem (which is where I part company with some of his critics). But one problem is the visible face of the homeless: the public sees the mostly-male, scary looking panhandlers with booze on their breath, and thinks cutting off their drinking money might be a good thing. But Care Not Cash
also takes money away from single mothers living with their kids in a car; they can no longer save up to buy a hotel room on a particularly cold night.

Posted by: Joe Buck | May 4, 2005 6:52:08 PM

It's important to point out the supportive housing component was opposed by Newsom when he was a member of the BOS and was the work of Supervisor Tom Ammiano. Newsom is an opportunist
who has no clue

And there are huge disputes over the numbers

Posted by: Katherine Graham Cracker | May 4, 2005 7:33:40 PM

But Care Not Cash also takes money away from single mothers living with their kids in a car; they can no longer save up to buy a hotel room on a particularly cold night.

Try walking around UN Plaza, especially in front of that 24/7 open air drug market in front of Carl's Jr. or down Eddy sometime and then tell me that San Francisco should dole out $300 in drug money to those guys. Homelessness is out of control in San Francisco. Handing out wads of money isn't fixing anything.

The cash could be better spent on police, drug treatment, etc. I refuse to let my tax dollars subsidize some drug dealer's new grill or some drunk's next bottle of vodka.

Posted by: Old Hat | May 4, 2005 8:05:15 PM

all the hep cats now say "blue-dogging" the poor rather than "DLCing" the poor.

Posted by: praktike | May 4, 2005 8:18:24 PM

Grammar Police

it's = it is
its =possessive of it

Posted by: Abby | May 4, 2005 9:37:38 PM

I agree with Old Hat. It always stricks me when people bring up 'mother with children' and leave off the mother with children and a nasty drug habit. subsidizing drug problems and the drug dealers does not help these same children. Gavin has got the ball rolling on a problem that was careening out of control.
BTW I'm not saying EVERY mother with children.

Posted by: nenabeans | May 4, 2005 9:40:11 PM


Posted by: ethan | May 5, 2005 5:03:50 AM

Mayor Newsom has done an amazing job, especially considering he just gets sniping and backbiting from critics who claim to care about the homeless but have done nothing but say they should all get more money (no housing) whether they spend it on drugs, liquor or not. Getting the hard-core homeless off the street not only improves the quality of life for everyone, but it also reduces the costs of other services like ER care, policing, DPW (cleaning the streets) and numerous other public costs. That in turn frees up more public funds for everything from parks to Care Not Cash.

Also, Mayor Newsom has done an incredible job of focusing on the quality of life in the poorest neighborhoods -- in and around some of the worst public housing projects, he's had his administration clean up and fix street lights, dumpsters, park areas and so on.

Everyone who's complaining is just so used to complaining that they can't become part of the solution.

Posted by: halle | May 5, 2005 12:37:39 PM


I'd advise being a little more selective in your rules of evidence. The SF Chronicle is extremely partisan in its support of Newsom and has boosted Care Not Cash from day one. That doesn't mean the statistics in the article are false, but I would take every statement that is not a verifiable number or a direct quote with a grain of salt. For instance, what is the source of the statement that "from the critics to the residents, reviews of the housing conditions all year have been enthusiastic"? The article doesn't say, but your post simply repeats that claim as fact.

There are other not very subtle clues to the writer's sympathies. For instance, one of the major substantive (as opposed to ideological) arguments against Newsom's plan was that it prioritized CnC recipients to receive scarce shelter beds while waiting for real housing, so that people from the much larger group of marginally homeless who don't meet CnC criteria end up without a bed and thus more homeless than before. The article dismisses this issue in a single phrase: "quibbles over shelter beds". Apparently you either didn't know about this issue or didn't find it worth mentioning. How long have you been following SF politics? (*)

But even assuming the article is gospel, one thing it makes clear, which you do not, is that we don't know what happened to most of the people removed from the welfare rolls. The city has not been very interested in finding out. I do think Newsom means well in many ways, but he certainly behaves as if he's afraid of objective evidence that might contradict his ideology. When you're playing with the lives of people who are poorer than you can imagine, the kind of vague hand-waving that Newsom uses to dismiss critics (as when he says making up for lost federal money is "a value judgment he'll make one case at a time") is inexcusable.

(*) Another thing that makes it sound as if you're not all that familiar with SF: you said criticism of Care Not Cash "drove a strong Green Party challenge that almost denied Newsom the mayorship". I think there's a general consensus that CnC was Newsom's biggest strength in the campaign - he certainly ran as if it was, and it put him over the top with moderate-to-conservative middle-class SF voters, who are sort of like Reagan Democrats on this one issue. (It also got him heaps of very public support from SF business groups - SF was covered with billboards calling for welfare reform, sponsored by hotel and restaurant owners.) The Green Party mayoral challenge, like the previous shakeup in the Board of Supervisors, was driven by disgust at Willie Brown's corrupt and autocratic ways. Newsom was Brown's chosen successor. You don't have to take my word for it or the Bay Guardian's, you can just read anything at all besides the Chron...

Posted by: EliB | May 5, 2005 1:56:24 PM

Unfortunately, comments like halle's (9:37 AM) probably do represent how many SF voters think. Of course the "critics say they should all get more money (no housing)" stuff is just straw-man bluster. But statements like "Getting the hard-core homeless off the street ... reduces the costs of other services like ER care, policing ... that in turn frees up more public funds for everything from parks to Care Not Cash" could be mistaken for real arguments, in the total absence of any data about how much this stuff really costs.

So as long as we're throwing anecdotes around: as an RN working at SF General Hospital, I can tell you there has been no noticeable drop in the number of alcoholic or heroin-addicted street people who come in with hypothermia, pneumonia, and ghastly rotting wounds. But that's only surprising if you think the people who received GA checks were mostly addicts and mostly homeless.

Posted by: EliB | May 5, 2005 2:23:30 PM

EliB -- As long as we're going with anecdotal evidence (your "no noticable drop"), I live just a few blocks from SF General, and since the program started I can tell you there are far fewer homeless people sleeping around my driveway and waiting by the liquor store (100 ft from my door) before opening time on the first of the month (when the GA checks arrived). We've had to make far fewer calls to DPW have human feces cleaned up off the streets, or to call for help for passed out people lying on the street or sidewalk.

I did a lot of talking with colleagues who work with the homeless -- social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. The ones who weren't supporters of the program before are largely supportive now. I'm sure it's not perfect, but knowing the Gonzalez supporters in the city, nothing will ever be perfect enough for them and if it was, they'd move the goalposts. In a year, Newsom has done more positive on social issues than the last I don't know how many mayors put together. If the effort all flames out, I'll criticize it too, but forgive me if I think creating supportive housing for 800 people in SF in a year is something to be proud of.

Posted by: halle | May 5, 2005 7:02:19 PM

Halle, would you please quit it with the straw men and the "forgive me" sarcasm? I defy you to find anyone who thinks creating housing for 800 people is not a good thing. That is not the argument. The arguments have been spelled out, with varying degrees of clarity, in the Chronicle article Ezra linked, and in the comments above. For me, the biggest issue is that the program is taking resources from other homeless or marginally housed people and thus potentially creating more street people. I say "potentially" because Newsom is making very little attempt to document the effects of the program in any objective way, he's just saying it won't be a problem and basically ignoring questions about how he's going to pay for all this. To me, this is a bad thing.

Posted by: EliB | May 6, 2005 11:19:16 AM

Let me start by noting that, though I moved about 3 years ago, I lived in SF for over 10 years and worked with Newsom back when he was a Supe. I have NO doubt that his heart and mind are both in the right place. He legitimately believes that we need a solution that works better for both the homeless and the non-homeless in SF. He contends honestly that homelessness in SF is a quality of life issue for many, as well as an economic issue in a city that, like it or not, derives a substantial proportion of its jobs and tax revenues from tourism. And he believes that CnC is a first step towards a better solution.

Further, nobody would contend that CnC is a failure if it fails to eliminate homelessness, nor that it is a success if it doesn't help the homeless population mainstream, at least to some degree. So, like most of politics, this is about priorities and spending levels.

Eli is right when he says that, to properly examine the program, we need better data. Some of that is difficult to get, but Newsom seems to be especially disinterested in gathering the data. From what I've read, it seems that he contends that the data can't be anything but inconclusive because it's simply too early in the program. While my work with him in the past makes me want to give him the benefit of the doubt, this strikes me as disingenuous. Government programs are evaluated this way all the time, and we know how to do it. And I believe Newsom to be a smart enough politician that, if the numbers redounded to his benefit, he'd have them. I think the lack of numbers is ominous.

But I think Eli is wrong to contend that the issue with CnC is that, in his words, "the biggest issue is that the program is taking resources from other homeless or marginally housed people and thus potentially creating more street people." As I said, this is about priorities. The marginally housed are, I think, properly a lower priority than the hard-core homeless. They are sometimes making it, and we can hope that they will catch a break. For the hard-core homeless, we know that, without programs, they're going to stay on the streets indefinitely. So, when we prioritize, we are faced with focusing on a group that we know will fail without help (and lead to a worse qquality of life and tourism for the rest of us if the obvious humanistic arguments for why we shoud help don't work), or helping those who sometimes succeed. It is rational to help the latter because it's easier to point to success, but it's equally rational to help the former, in hopes that we won't have to help the latter nearly as much.

And, of course, one of the solutions may well be to dedicate more funds to allow more of a parallel effort. Now that I no longer live there, it's easy for me to call for higher taxes in the city to pay for more services. But the proper level of taxation and the proper proportion to be spent on this issue is a larger, more difficult question than debating the best way to spend the money.

Posted by: Ron | May 6, 2005 12:12:22 PM

Ron, I wasn't talking about prioritizing one group over another in terms of new spending; I agree that it makes sense to direct new efforts toward the group that's in the most immediate danger. I said "taking resources from other homeless or marginally housed people and thus potentially creating more street people" and that's what I meant.

Specifically: CnC requires the city to reserve existing shelter beds for those who are awaiting the new housing. That can be up to a six-month wait. During that time, those shelter beds are unavailable for people who may have a new, urgent need for them, or who may have been relying on them for some time, but who were not receiving county welfare checks. (more here) And since many of the "hard-core homeless" are all too familiar with the shelter system and consider those beds nasty and unsafe, they may choose not to use them - but the beds are still reserved and unavailable for others. There have been reports of shelter beds going empty for that very reason, but again, no studies, no numbers. (But the numbers that are available make the potential problem pretty obvious: 1400 to 1500 total shelter beds; 15 to 27 percent reserved for CnC; 6000 to 8000 homeless.) This issue has been raised from the very beginning of Newsom's campaign and he has dodged it every time.

There's a more basic problem with your assumption that the people in CnC are the most homeless of the homeless. CnC is not based on how poor you are, but on whether you get county welfare; People who rely on anything else, such as disability checks, don't qualify, though they may be just as badly off. And there were plenty of people on county welfare who were renting rooms in SROs; even if they were also spending some of their money on booze or drugs, they were better protected from the weather and from each other than in the shelter system.

Posted by: EliB | May 6, 2005 3:52:09 PM

Some valuable discussion going on here. I think we will be able to more easily estimate the progress of the program by the years end. October and November will see several more SROs fitup for Care Not Cash, including at least 2 that our company will be managing.
Hopefully, an increase in available CnC units will alleviate some of the initial and/or current problems we are seeing with regards to available shelter beds.
Thanks to everyone for the valuable input.

Brad Kraft

Posted by: brad | Jun 2, 2005 4:38:19 PM

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