Ken Garcia: Protest over city’s homelessness program not heard much anymore

There was a time not too many years ago when a relatively simple welfare-reform plan in San Francisco was the most controversial topic in town. It was an idea to take money doled out in general assistance funds and use it instead on services and housing for the homeless.

Care Not Cash, as it came to be known, became the subject of a major opposition campaign led by public officials who had a vested interest in the nonprofit homeless lobby they helped to create. The voters, tired of the rhetorical jousting that did nothing to address The City’s escalating homeless problem, overwhelmingly approved the reform plan, and after some lengthy court battles, it became law.

You don’t hear about Care Not Cash much anymore, for the simple reason that it’s been so overwhelmingly successful that those who opposed it don’t want to remind people just how wrong they were. And, of course, those officials who fought it, such as Supervisor Chris Daly and his former colleague Matt Gonzalez, don’t want to have to give credit to Mayor Gavin Newson, who authored the plan that helped launch his campaign to become San Francisco’s chief executive.

Newsom will announce a number of new initiatives in his annual “State of Homelessness’’ address today, but it’s the existing ones that are worth noting, since the real-life figures helped by Care Not Cash have been fairly astounding.

When Care Not Cash went into effect in May 2004, San Francisco had 2,497 people on its general assistance payroll. At the end of last month, there were only 333 people receiving GA checks, a whopping 87 percent decline.

Perhaps even more impressive is that 1,700 homeless have been housed since the program started.

The goal of The City’s 10-year plan to end homelessness was to bring 3,000 units of permanent housing on line by 2014. But according to Trent Rhorer, director of San Francisco’s Department of Human Services, in just two and a half years The City has brought 1,800 permanent units of housing on line.

Combined with all of the other homeless outreach services and the Homeward Bound program, which has reunited 1,788 homeless people with their family or friends, nearly 4,800 people in San Francisco have left the streets or the shelter system in less than three years — a figure that reportedly outpaces nearly every city in the country.

“We’re far ahead of any other homeless effort that we’re aware of,’’ Rhorer told me. “When you think about the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s pretty astounding. But we still have a ways to go.’’

For all the success of Care Not Cash and all the other homeless initiatives, San Francisco remains a magnet for the disenfranchised because of the wealth of social services available to them. As people who walk along Haight Street or just about anywhere in the Tenderloin can attest, the street population may have been reduced, but it’s hardly gone away. Chronic problems such as panhandling, public drinking and drug dealing have generally been ignored by The City’s so-called criminal justice system, which for more than a decade has failed to focus on quality-of-life offenses despite the predictable results.

Newsom is expected to announce today that he is forming a task force in conjunction with the District Attorney’s Office to set up a community court system such as the one in New York to attempt to address the problem, so that habitual offenders are no longer immediately sent back on the street. No doubt civil liberties groups will rise up in protest, but as with Care Not Cash, public support to deal with quality-of-life crimes will likely be sky-high.

“There’s been no accountability for certain types of public behavior,’’ Rhorer said. “We’re way far behind in terms of dealing with street problems in the criminal justice system.’’

It pays to remember that just three months ago, when the mayor announced he was going to be sending outreach teams into Golden Gate Park to clean up homeless encampments, there was an uproar among the usual suspects. Yet rather than root people out of the park, city workers actually got more than 115 people into housing or in touch with their families — a show of compassion. It’s been a more effective tool than waiting for bad weather to come to open shelters.

San Francisco has always been known for its big contingent of naysayers — but just because they’re loud doesn’t mean they’re right.

Note to readers: Happy holidays. I’ll see you back on these pages next year.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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