Let’s ensure that money to end homelessness will actually help

San Francisco has a major problem with homelessness. The human cost is heavy on those who live on the streets. It also impacts residents and tourists who are repeatedly faced with tent encampments, needles, and the occasional person screaming on the corner.

This November, San Franciscans will vote on Proposition C to add a new tax on the gross receipts of the 300 or 400 richest companies in the City to help people who are homeless. The new tax would raise over $300 million annually, doubling the current money spent on homeless services.

I really want to vote for Proposition C, but I’m not sure I can. It is clear that more money is needed to help the homeless. But just throwing money at the problem won’t necessarily solve it.

“The City needs to audit the $300+ million we are already spending on homelessness,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement announcing her opposition to Prop C. “Before we double the tax bill overnight, San Franciscans deserve accountability for the money they are already paying.”

I agree with her. San Francisco has spent millions over the last decade on homeless services with little accountability about how that money has been spent, who’s been helped, and which programs work best.

If we simply double funding for homeless services, we risk throwing good money after bad.

In another potential problem, Proposition C specifies what percentage of the money raised can be used for specific program areas. For example, 50 percent of the total money raised must go to housing programs, with roughly half of that committed to housing families and youth.

This wording locks in funding priorities for homeless services. What we need is flexibility to shift money as the needs of people who live on the street shift over time or as new approaches are developed.

For example, the recent state law expanding conservatorships for homeless people with severe mental illness or drug addiction could allow the City to help those in the most distress. But we don’t yet know what programs San Francisco will need or use to implement the law.

Homeless Outreach Team members – the people who go out, form relationships with the people who are homeless, and try to steer them into services – do the hard work on the streets. Yet they make about $50,000 a year. They’re not city employees. Instead, they’re paid by nonprofits funded by The City. About half of the Team members quit every year because of the stress of the job and the low pay.

Meanwhile, people hired for the new “Poop Patrol” to keep our streets and sidewalks clean are City employees and will make over $71,000 a year.

Why don’t we hire Homeless Outreach Team members as City employees and pay them enough so they don’t quit? Expanding and supporting Outreach Team members would be money well spent. But will it be a priority under Prop C?

I want to help the homeless get off the street and into supportive housing. But I want the City to be smart about how it does that.

Therefore, I call on Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors to publicly commit to hold the funds generated by Prop C in reserve for a period of a year in the event that the proposition passes.

And I call on the Mayor and the board to immediately begin a thorough audit of existing homeless services.

City leaders should commit – in advance of the election – to not spend Prop C funds until after the audit of existing programs has been completed, non-effective programs have been identified and de-funded, and new programs based on the conservatorship law have been developed. If the audit is completed in less than a year, then Prop C funds could be released sooner. This action would address the concerns of Proposition opponents while ensuring much-needed funds are available for effective programs to address homelessness.

With this commitment in place, I will wholeheartedly support Proposition C. Without it, I don’t think I can.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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