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War of words over Fair Shelter Initiative
From the moment a measure to amend San Francisco’s Care Not Cash law was placed on the November ballot last month, the proposition has come under fire from politicians.
Now the proposal has become a hot issue in the lead-up to this fall's mayoral race.
The measure, known as the Fair Shelter Initiative, alters the definition of housing for administering county welfare benefits. Specifically, it would remove beds at city-funded homeless shelters from the definition of "housing."
Proponents, including Supervisor and mayoral candidate John Avalos, say removing shelters from the definition will restore needed cash benefits to sheltered homeless people and increase pressure on the system to move people into permanent housing faster.
However, detractors, including Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and former Supervisor Bevan Dufty, say the proposal will gut former Mayor Gavin Newsom's signature anti-homelessness reform, Care Not Cash. The measure replaced checks worth hundreds of dollars per month with basic housing in residential hotels.
Avalos, Ting and Dufty are among the first mayoral candidates to publicly state their positions on the November ballot measure, which was authored by District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim.
Homeless people on the County Adult Assistance Program are given a monthly grant of $59 plus the offer of housing, be it a single-resident occupancy hotel, residential substance abuse or mental health treatment facility, transitional housing, supportive housing program or a homeless shelter bed.
The initiative would preserve the $59 paid to CAAP recipients in such living situations, except those living in shelters. Those in shelters would be eligible for the full general assistance payment of $422.
Out of 1,134 shelter beds for single adults, 345 are reserved for people in the CAAP program, who comprise less than 8 percent of the homeless population. Proponents believe prioritizing these beds for Care Not Cash participants puts other shelter clients, including those receiving senior, disability or veterans’ benefits at a disadvantage.
“It’s a simple change to an existing law. This is manifestly a good policy issue,” said Bob Offer-Westort, a civil rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness.
However, the initiative has already been denounced by Mayor Ed Lee and mayoral candidates Ting and Dufty as something that would “dismantle Care Not Cash.”
“The ballot measure prohibits the use of shelter stays as housing for homeless individuals,” Dufty said on his campaign website. Dufty supported the original Care Not Cash measure, which passed on the 2002 city ballot.
On Ting’s Reset San Francisco website, a campaign video repeats the meme that “this amendment would mean the virtual end of the Care Not Cash program.” The video also features testimonials from formerly homeless people who extol the existing program. But no reference to shelter is made in the video.
“The video seems exploitative,” said Offer-Westort. “The statements involved do not include the questions asked and they’re completely taken out of context.”
Ting accepted a challenge from the Coalition on Homelessness to debate the initiative and other homeless issues. A date has yet to be chosen.
Avalos is one of four supervisors who placed the measure on the ballot.
"We're just trying to make sure shelter beds get claimed," Avalos said. "If that's 'dismantling Care Not Cash,' I don't know what they're talking about."
About the Author
T.J. Johnston is a San Francisco-based journalist. He has been published in Newsdesk.org; Street Sheet; Street Spirit; Poor Magazine; Race, Poverty & the Environment; and Now Public, among other publications and Web sites.