Homelessness gets center stage

Mayor Gavin Newsom and homeless advocates held dueling news conferences Wednesday — one to discuss The City’s success in securing housing for more than 2,000 formerly homeless persons, and the other to criticize the millions The City is spending to hand out citations to those still on the streets.

One of Newsom’s hallmark programs, Care Not Cash, reduces the amount of cash given to homeless people on welfare in exchange for housing or shelter. The program, approved by voters in 2002 despite protests from homeless advocates, has placed more than 2,000 formerly homeless persons into housing since its inception in May 2004, Newsom said Wednesday.

Care Not Cash brought a “tremendous amount of controversy … but also a tremendous amount of opportunity,” Newsom said at a Tenderloin hotel-turned-housing complex, boasting that many initial critics of the program now see its merit.

A few blocks away, at City Hall, a group of spiritual leaders representing Religious Witness with Homeless People, a San Francisco advocacy group, simultaneously held a news conference to protest the ongoing arrests of poor and homeless people who are living or hanging out on the streets.

While the group commended Newsom for prioritizing supportive housing for homeless people and for offering homeless people needed social services, they said that giving numerous citations to people on the streets for such offenses as sleeping, panhandling and public urination is a waste of city money.

San Francisco has spent more than $7.8 million in taxpayer dollars to issue, file and adjudicate 46,684 citations since Newsom came into office, according to the group’s study of public records, including documents from the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s totally ineffective and extremely expensive,” said the group’s founder, Sister Bernie Galvin. “It drags poor and homeless people into the criminal justice system.”

San Francisco is ready to revive a crackdown on low-level crimes committed by homeless people and others hanging out on the streets of the South of Market area, Newsom confirmed this week.

The program, called the “downtown outreach plan,” will use teams of police officers and social service staff working in a 15-block area, from Third Street to Fifth Street and Market to Harrison streets. Officers will tell offenders committing such crimes as littering, blocking the sidewalk and intoxication that they can take offered city services or receive a citation.

A count conducted by The City at the start of this year identified 6,377 people as homeless.

beslinger@examiner.com

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