Trump isn’t the only surprise winner this election season. Here in San Francisco, homeless people had a major win — despite the odds, voters clearly are demanding housing and compassion from The City. The positive results may not be obvious on the surface, but let me explain.
Back in spring, homeless advocates were researching revenue options for the ballot that would provide the funding to solve these critical issues. We saw this election as a great opportunity to affect change. This work was interrupted by Supervisor Mark Farrell’s insistence on partnering homelessness with transportation and putting a split measure sales tax on the ballot. The sales tax woud generate $50 million for homeless housing, enough to get thousands off the streets. He managed to steer colleagues away from progressive revenue options, declared he had polling, big tent support and that this was the singular option that would get both the mayor’s and voters’ support. A large and very fragile coalition formed. But Farrell never truly collaborated with key allies, and he then went on to kick down the big tent and ensure the defeat of the very same sales tax he sponsored.
And kick down the tent he did, the sales tax, Prop K, lost with a massive thirty-point spread. He managed to alienate and anger potential allies quickly when he introduced alongside Supervisor Scott Wiener two anti-homeless measures. Big tent coalitions are fragile, and when you go out of your way to push people out of the tent, the tent gets very small, and falls down. While he was warned his Prop Q was pure political posturing that would neither decrease the number of tents on our sidewalk nor result in any solutions, but it would deeply damage the sales tax, he didn’t seem to care. The anti-homeless measures diverted both the campaign chest and the volunteers needed to pass the sales tax. The whole point of a big tent is to have big tent resources. Many on the ground who would have spent all their time on the sales tax were now forced to spend time defending homeless people against the attacks levied against them in Farrell’s Prop Q. Farrell ensured plenty of funding for the tent ban, and virtually walked away from the homeless housing sales tax. In the end Prop Q had more then double the war chest as Prop K.
Which is the other way he guaranteed the sales tax demise. The well funded tent ban campaign put out two very distinct poisonous messages that killed the sales tax. One was the anti-homeless vitriol. Voters could only read his messaging as: homeless people as a class are unsafe, unhealthy, thieving, needle waving rapists. Now who wants to pay for their housing? The second core part of his message was that there are enough services for homeless people. He stated repeatedly that there were vacant shelter beds, failing to mention those beds were not available or only available for one night, 900 people were already waiting for beds, and gave the impression that there is enough housing for homeless people. This messaging told voters that funding for housing wasn’t needed, and hacked away at the public’s support for solutions.
So where is the homeless victory, you may be wondering. In spite of all this fumbling, homeless people and their supporters rose up and took some on very powerful interests and took surprising victories. In the end, San Francisco voters told City Hall that they do want the homeless population to be housed and they want a compassionate approach to homelessness. For the first time in over 15 years, a politician failed to succeed at using homeless people as political fodder for his higher office ambition. Out of two anti-homeless measures on San Francisco’s ballot, one has been defeated, Prop R (police set aside) and the other, Prop Q (tent ban), is too close to call and cannot be called a voter mandate. Farrell’s Prop Q proponents spent almost $800,000 in funding from billionaires to take away tents from homeless people, and they expected to win in a landslide. Opponents, with only $8,000, managed to beat back both Propositions Q and R with a colorful, hard working, people driven grassroots campaign. These results constitute a major shift in the public’s attitude. Back in 2010, the ban on sidewalk sitting or lying during daytime hours got 59-percent support, whereas Prop R which would have permanently set aside 3 percent of police to criminalize homeless people and conflate property crime with poverty only garnered 45 percent of the vote.
At the same time voters did approve — by a huge margin of 33 points — Proposition J, which asks the city to set aside $50 million for homeless housing, while they chose to reject Proposition K, the sales tax funding mechanism. What voters said with this split vote is “We want homeless people to be housed. Use your budget to pay for it!” There was also an initiative, Proposition S, which would have set aside hotel tax funding to end family homelessness. This measure was a clear voter mandate and got 63-percent approval, but failed to get the two-third requirement. Taken together, the mayor has new instructions from voters: “Stop the police-directed sidewalk shuffle of homeless people, treat people compassionately and find $67 million in your $8.6 billion budget and solve this crisis now!
It is up to all of us to ensure he does.
Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.