SF Chronicle Wrong on Homelessness

by on October 26, 2015

The San Francisco Chronicle’s October 25 front-page story, “S.F.’s homeless crisis: Can Ed Lee clean up streets,” set a new low for erroneous reporting on the issue. The story’s conclusions—that Mayor Lee has ignored the homeless problem, that homeless coordinator Bevan Dufty accomplished little prior to the Navigation Center, and that “answers to the problem appear increasingly hard to find” are all demonstrably false.

San Francisco deserves honesty in addressing its homeless problem. So lets compare this highly promoted story with the facts.

Has Mayor Lee Ignored Homelessness?

According to the story, Mayor Lee has not focused on homelessness as much as prior mayors. Lee “dropped Newsom’s annual State of Homelessness speeches, didn’t make many visits to shelters or service providers, and moved his homeless czar from across the hall from his own office to the basement of City Hall.”

Here are the facts.

Lee did drop Newsom’s annual State of the Homelessness speeches, which are hardly a test of a mayor’s commitment to an issue (Newsom’s contribution to reducing homelessness is Care Not Cash, not speeches). Yet where Newsom and prior mayors had a single person as “homeless czar”, Lee appointed Dufty as Director of the newly created office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE). Lee’s homeless coordinator was the first to have a staff and a separate office. Dufty also was given far more resources than any prior homeless “czar.”

Since a fully staffed office could not fit in the hall offices across from the mayor, larger quarters were found in the basement. A mere two-minute walk from the mayor’s office.  The truth is that Lee committed new resources to homelessness right from the start, with the Chronicle completely misinterpreting the relocation of Dufty’s office

As for Lee not making visits to homeless service providers, Knight and Palomino must not read the SF Chronicle. Check out John Cote’s September 23, 2014 story, “Horror show hotel transformed into home for veterans, “ in which Mayor Lee highlighted the opening of the 130- unit Stanford Hotel at 250 Kearney for homeless veterans. Cote described the project as “a sizable piece of the city’s effort to end homelessness for veterans by the end of 2015.”

Dufty was the driving force behind the remarkable Stanford Hotel project. Yet his contribution to ending homelessness among veterans, as well as his and Mayor Lee’s presence at the opening, was omitted from this new Chronicle story

The Chronicle reporters could also have read Kevin Fagan’s May 15, 2015 story, “Mayor Lee looks to spend millions more on homeless.” The backdrop was Mayor Lee’s presence at the Raman Hotel as it housed graduates from the Navigation Center. The reporters also ignored the Mayor’s October 13 event at the opening of the 180-unit Baldwin Hotel for the formerly homeless—a story the SF Chronicle did not cover.

Lee has routinely attended openings of new housing and shelters for homeless persons. He also funded the addition of 500 supportive housing units in this year’s budget and is committed to 500 more next year.

The story even falsely claims that Bevan Dufty was “was mostly left on his own to try some small programs.” I cannot believe that anyone covering the city for the Chronicle could not recognize Dufty’s outsized role as the Lee Administration’s point person on homelessness. Since 2012 Dufty has done more to keep the homelessness crisis on the front burner than any public official in San Francisco. He performed this role even as he avoided public credit for such successes as creating housing for homeless veterans at the Fairfax Hotel.

Dufty deserves all plaudits for moving the city forward on homelessness. But Bevan only had the opportunity to make such a difference because Mayor Ed Lee created a special position for him.

The San Francisco Chronicle has featured many informed articles about homelessness. But having reporter Heather Knight cover the mayor’s record on homelessness is like having NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd write about Hillary Clinton’s record on any issue; the reporter’s personal animus toward their subject leads to falsehoods and an inaccurate story.

Mayor Ed Lee has not ignored homelessness. The issue was off the front pages soon after Newsom’s second term began and the city’s budget deficits then limited the mayor’s ability to increase homeless program spending. But since the city had new money to spend in the past two budgets, the Mayor has invested heavily in a problem that no prior mayor going back to Dianne Feinstein has had sufficient resources to solve.

Further, where the mayor’s performance has fallen short—such as in the city’s less than effective street outreach—it’s not because the mayor wouldn’t invest in  the problem. Lee added over $1.5 million to the city’s homeless outreach budget in a special spring 2014 appropriation only to see the Health Department suspend the program rather than ramp it up as promised.The buck stops with the mayor on the street outreach program’s performance (which is finally improving) but he cannot be faulted for not providing the resources.

The Answers are Known

Far more damaging than its mistruths about Lee’s record is the SF Chronicle’s claims that the city still doesn’t know how to solve homelessness and the money it does spend has no “payoff.”

As I recently described (“The Perfect Solution to Homelessness,” September 26, 2015), we have long known the “answer” to homelessness. A combination of supportive housing, a dramatic increase in federal affordable housing funding, and strategic street outreach would go a long way toward solving homelessness both in San Francisco and the United States. It would return the nation to the pre-1982 era before widespread visible homelessness became common.

Yet Knight and Palomino choose instead to insult our intelligence with lines like this: “San Francisco spends $167 million a year on supportive housing for formerly homeless people and services for those still on the streets but Gould doesn’t see the payoff.” Debi Gould has previously been identified as a retired flight attendant who bought a condo in South Beach. The reporters use her view that there is no “payoff” from city funding and that “we aren’t seeing any differences coming from City Hall” as a surrogate for their own perspective.

I wonder if Gould’s response would be the same if the reporters had brought her to the Stanford Hotel and had her ask residents if that supportive housing funding is making a difference in their lives. It might have changed her perspective. But the issue isn’t Gould, who spoke truthfully about her feelings. Rather, the reporters use Gould like climate change deniers use other sources that lack expertise: to give a “person on the street” perspective that contradicts known facts.

Reporters know that supportive housing requires annual rent subsidies that are getting even more expensive as the gap between poor people’s incomes and market rents grows. Why then does the media continually point to the $167 million figure and try to deny that it’s making a difference in thousands of people’s lives?

Where is the morality in this?

No reporter would dare foolishly question the massive amounts spent on cancer research because the lack of a cancer cure means we aren’t seeing a “payoff.” So why promote the lie that spending to house homeless people makes no difference?

All these type of stories do is make it easier for politicians and portions of the public to justify not funding affordable housing and other solutions to homelessness. And Congress hardly needs further reasons not to ensure housing for the poor.

The truth is that no San Francisco mayor can “clean up the streets” because the city lacks the resources and the physical space to house everyone who comes to San Francisco seeking housing. The city can provide more exits, which it is doing. It can also do a much better job addressing those on the street with mental health issues, and I hope Mayor Lee moves forward on this.

San Francisco can do better. But with Congressional Republicans refusing to provide necessary funding and even California Governor Jerry Brown rejecting virtually every effort to increase state resources, placing all of the blame on local government for not solving the problem is a cynical, dishonest and counterproductive approach.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the city’s leading provider of supportive housing for homeless single adults. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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