Five San Francisco Supervisors have placed an initiative on the November ballot to effectively repeal Care Not Cash, which has housed 3400 homeless persons since 2005. District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, the chief sponsor of the measure, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the initiative does not seek to weaken Care Not Cash (CNC) but to “clarify and strengthen it.” Yet the measure repeals CNC’s central premise that homeless single adults on welfare should not get $422 per month if they refuse SRO housing. The initiative also dramatically reverses San Francisco homeless policy: it replaces a system designed to get homeless people housed with one subsidizing homeless people to live permanently in shelters. The measure increases homelessness and provides no alternative funding to make up for the millions of CNC dollars that would be eliminated from the city’s supportive housing budget.

Rachel Gordon’s June 22, 2011 SF Chronicle story noted that the measure to effectively repeal CNC was “quietly placed on the November ballot.” That’s a good description. Neither tenants in SRO’s funded by CNC – some of whom could face eviction if the initiative passes – nor non-profit groups operating CNC housing were consulted by either sponsor Kim or the other supervisors (Disclosure: the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, leases and manages CNC hotels. Our city contract is through 2015, so would not be immediately affected by the initiative’s passage, though other nonprofits leasing SRO’s with CNC funds would be.)

Housing vs. Shelters

San Francisco homeless advocates have historically urged the city to fund housing over shelters, since only the former end homelessness. That’s why CNC opponents in 2002 claimed that money would be spent on “bureaucracy” not housing, and emphasized the lack of guaranteed housing funding in the text of the initiative.

But CNC’s implementation dramatically increased housing opportunities for a population whose entire grant amount was insufficient to afford a permanent SRO room in the Uptown Tenderloin or South-of-Market areas. CNC created more exits from homelessness than any previous city program, dramatically improved longtime troubled SRO’s by upgrading conditions and management, and got people into housing before their health further decomposed from living on the street.

While some (including, apparently, the proponents of the November initiative) still oppose funding housing by reducing welfare grant levels, the fact is that the general assistance grant was historically connected to the cost of rent. CNC rejected the notion that single adults on county welfare should get a full grant if they reject SRO housing, and it’s a mystery as to what occurred in 2011 – six years into implementation – to lead five Supervisors to seek to reverse this policy.

Increased Homelessness

The initiative would greatly increase homelessness in San Francisco for two reasons.

First, allowing welfare recipients to get a $422 cash grant while also living in city-funded shelters will sharply reduce CNC’s supportive housing funding. The rise in monthly payments from the current $59 to $422 will cost the city $363 for every recipient who chooses to live in a shelter. If the 85% reduction in homeless welfare recipients since CNC’s passage (from 3000 to 300) is reversed via the initiative’s new rules, the first year loss in CNC funding is 2700 x $363 x 12 months, or about $1.2 million.

Understand we are talking about people who have the option of accepting permanent housing but refuse. People who want to get a full city grant, live in a city-funded shelter, but want the right to pay nothing.

The loss of $1.25 million will almost surely cause the closure of one if not two CNC-funded SRO’s. This will immediately put many of the formerly homeless tenants in these hotels back on the streets, as they will not be able to afford housing that the city no longer has the resources to subsidize.

The city could maintain hotel funding and find the $1.25 million by cutting shelters, but shelter space will be more needed than ever given the increased demand from those eager to get $422 and live rent-free.

Second, the initiative revives the long controversial problem of San Francisco having a welfare program dramatically more generous than surrounding counties. Back in the 1980’s, activists like myself regularly disputed Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s belief in the “magnet” theory, which argued that San Francisco should not provide adequate levels of cash or services to welfare recipients in order to avoid becoming a “magnet” for unemployed single adults from nearby counties.

Those were the days when San Francisco’s grant was only marginally more generous than others, and before every other Bay Area County made draconian welfare cuts. For example, Alameda County now pays homeless welfare recipients $25 per month, and limits payments to employable recipients to 3 full months in any 12-month period.

San Mateo’s monthly homeless welfare grant is $59.

Think that homeless welfare recipients might move to San Francisco if they can get a monthly cash grant of $422 rather than $25 or $59?

I do not know how many of those currently living in nearby counties will come to San Francisco to get a $422 monthly cash grant plus a free shelter space, but I doubt the proponents of the CNC repeal have considered the implications. Their measure would greatly increase homelessness in San Francisco, while sharply reducing funding for supportive housing and other solutions.

Homeless Budget-Buster

If the initiative made up the lost CNC funds from another source, then at least it would not jeopardize existing city housing programs. But the Supervisors ignored the measure’s budget implications.

Currently, CNC allocates $15 million annually to supportive housing. If voters decide to return to pre-CNC days, nearly all of this money could be gone.

As the Supervisors deliberate San Francisco’s budget, they should ask themselves where they will get the money to fund an increased welfare population receiving dramatically higher ($59 vs. $422) monthly grants. And what public services they are prepared to sacrifice so that welfare recipients rejecting SRO housing can get free city-funded shelter and a $422 monthly grant.

Five Supervisors want CNC repealed, but the voters – who passed CNC by a 60-40 margin – are unlikely to agree.