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Friday, March 18, 2005

THE TRUTH ABOUT CARE NOT CASH


by Carol Harvey


“Care Not Cash is a bunch of hash,
I see Care Not Cash as my cigarette ash.
After Care Not Cash you don’t have any cash,
And don’t nobody care about you.”

- Wildman

Dominic Simeo, soft-spoken and articulate, has the face of a young Sylvester Stallone. His dark Italian hair contrasted with a white shirt and a simple ivory cross on a beaded lanyard around his neck that he had made himself.

On Sunday, January 30, in Civic Center Plaza, Dominic waited his turn with Rev. Jana Drakka, Rabbi Alan Lew, and others, to speak at the "Covenant of Compassion with Homeless People," a ceremony organized by Sister Bernie Galvin's Religious Witness with Homeless People to honor 72 homeless dead and tell "the other side of Care Not Cash." Religious leaders representing every faith and every area of San Francisco were present.

Dominic gazed over the crowd, smiling at Sister Bernie's slim, blue-suited figure, recalling her kidding him that he should stay in the nursing home with his grandparents. "It's not a place for this young guy," he joked.

He flashed back to the rainy night when he hauled three suitcases through a downpour, asking around the Tenderloin for the best place to stay. Soaking wet, he ran into Michael Moore, director of Hospitality House, on the street, who let him stay one night. It was like running "into a stream of light when you've got a dark tunnel ahead of you," Dominic said.

This New Jersey native has a business and management degree from Rutgers University. For six years, he was a service manager at a Reno, Nevada, Wal-Mart.

His grandfather, a blinded war vet, had surgery for skin cancer and needed 24-hour-care. His grandmother was hospitalized with breast cancer. Because his younger brother was in college in Connecticut, and he was closer to California, in mid-January, Dominic came by bus to San Francisco to sell his grandparents' home and move them from the hospital into a skilled nursing facility.

After his $3,000 ran out, he was too proud to allow his elders to help financially or pay his rent. "I took care of myself by finding Sister Bernie, and Michael Moore," who got him into the shelter.

Dominic liked Hospitality House. He applied at the 39 Fell McMillan Resource Center for a seven-day stay. Moore put him ahead on the waiting list for a 90-day bed, and "that got me in the G.A. program." Moore perceived Dominic as responsible and serious about getting a job. "He saw some inspiration and motivation in me to get out quick and handle my life. I proved him right. That's why he went out of his way to stretch above and beyond and help somebody out."

Too little Care, too little Cash

Speaking at the Covenant of Compassion ceremony, Dominic said, "People on Care Not Cash do not get enough care. Many could use the extra help or care, (someone) to sit down with them and really find out what's going on with their lives. Some with medical problems and illnesses don't have direction and can't function well or do it alone. They need support. That's where that Care comes in.

"As for the Cash program, any one person cannot survive on $59 dollars per month for their food (and) basic necessities. You only can buy simple things that you need - the little stuff. That money runs dry quick. You won't get anymore when it's gone. What do you do? (The GA workers) just look at you and say, 'Wait until next month, until the next paycheck.'"

Experienced homeless advocates point out that Care Not Cash targets only 2,600 to 3,000 people receiving General Assistance out of San Francisco's total homeless population of 12,000 to 16,000. Newsom's plan forces 2,600 to 3,000 homeless people to pay for 600 to 800 SRO units and 550 to 600 shelter placements.

Sister Bernie Galvin, the director of Religious Witness with Homeless People, stated, "We believe that it is basically morally wrong to impose the burden of solving the lack of affordable housing crisis of our city on the backs of the poorest members of our community, the homeless people themselves. And that is exactly what Care Not Cash has done. A new phrase has emerged in the last several months, 'Housed but Hungry.'"

She pointed out the City's responsibility to build affordable housing during financially stable times when San Francisco had the money.

The New Untouchables

After seeing the World War II movie, "The Piano," and then being panhandled by a ragged homeless man on Fillmore, I thought, "These streets are our Polish ghettos. These people are our new Untouchables, forced to live in miserable filth, hunger, and deprivation, blamed and victimized for it."

As was the case before Care Not Cash, homeless people report that pressure washers constantly roam the night streets, the loud humming significantly disrupting their sleep. Barriers have been erected in front of certain establishments to keep homeless people away.

Of these discomforts and indignities, Sister Bernie declared, "If the City of San Francisco wants to address homelessness in a compassionate way, then it must not only correct the many unfair aspects of the implementation of Care Not Cash, but must discontinue cruel practices such as placing huge metal barriers on the sidewalks and removing benches so that homeless people have no place to rest, spraying sleeping homeless people with water early in the morning to move them for street cleaning, and chasing homeless people from one end of this city to the other and from one neighborhood to the next."

To gain a closer understanding of survival issues in San Francisco, I interviewed 20 unhoused people, about an equal number of women and men. Four were receiving treatment for medical problems. Three had mental or emotional issues, of which two were in treatment. Six admitted problems with alcohol or drugs, none receiving treatment.

Three were presently housed in the Care Not Cash program. One was leaving the program, having foregone the required 20-job search, and finding employment on his own. One of the 20 had experienced the changeover from the full grant of $350 to the reductio ad absurdum of a $59 monthly cash grant. He said the full grant had allowed him to pay storage for his belongings, but now he used a friend's Berkeley garage, and eschewing the program, slept on the beach.

A third was housed by Care Not Cash but she said, "They should shut it down. We were housing ourselves fine on the old system."

Each unhoused person I interviewed was, in some way, modeling for the world the incredible toughness, resourcefulness, and creativity that marks supreme survivors.

The selling of Care Not Cash

For four years, Bill Hart, a former homeless client, has been the executive director of GAAP, the General Assistance Advocacy Project. He is a Public Benefits advocate, helping homeless people keep and sustain their benefits.

Hart told me, "In selling Care Not Cash to the voters, the voters didn't understand that the people affected by Care Not Cash were a small portion of the City's overall homeless problem. They voted for it because they thought it applied to homelessness in general."

Homeless people without children receiving cash aid from San Francisco's County Adult Assistance Program (CAAP) were phased into Care Not Cash from May through November 2004.

When their General Assistance benefits were cut from $350 to $59 a month, homeless CAAP clients were promised housing in shelters until they could be placed in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels. According to the SFGOV website: The larger portion of their welfare benefits are "being used to expand permanent housing and services for this population, including access to mental health, substance abuse, and other support services."

Bill Hart would like to believe, despite Newsom's contacts with the Chamber of Commerce and the business community, that the mayor recognized the true nature of San Francisco homelessness. Philip Mangano, the federal government's homelessness czar, said San Francisco had the worst homeless problem of any major U.S. city.

Homelessness and tourism

In running for mayor, Newsom saw that the people of San Francisco were fed up with homelessness. Tourism is San Francisco's biggest source of income, Newsom reasoned, yet homelessness and panhandling have spread to every neighborhood, including Fisherman's Wharf, and other tourist areas. That's the image both tourists and residents have of the City by the Bay.

Hart said he thought Newsom went into this knowing, "I've got to tackle this problem. It's going to take time. I'll model this after Chicago, Alameda County, and New York."

Newsom did not reveal to the voters that the Chicago plan was like Frank Jordan's Matrix program of repression, with police cleaning up the streets by tossing homeless people in jail. In New York, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the streets sparkle by picking up the homeless and delivering them to armories that were former military bases. The streets looked good, but the situation wasn't all that Newsom painted to the public.

Then, the Philadelphia idea arrived. With a population twice as large as San Francisco, Philadelphia had a low per-capita homeless count. The City's objective was to get people off the street into their own space where they had a bathroom and privacy. They would then receive psychological support, and alcohol and drug programs. Hart felt Philadelphia was successful because "the key was to get you into your own place no matter what your issues, then give you the support on the spot. That worked. And that's what Care Not Cash is doing."

Hart explained, "We are seeing clients taken off the street into their own SRO with their own space, put into permanent housing with services. We are seeing many known addicts or alcohol abusers get medical services and counseling on the spot. When we see many rehabilitate, Care Not Cash is working. We've seen the transformation of a number of our homeless clients."

A client with mental issues, on the street since 1999, was placed into the McAllister Hotel with case management and psychiatric consultation. He is comfortable and happy in his own room.

"We are seeing many wanting to return to the workplace, looking for part-time work, wanting us to help them with their resume," Hart said. "We've done over 450 resumes for clients in the past year. We provide them with dedicated computers, Internet, and a printer. We teach them how to look on open jobs on Craig's list, and the EDD line - Bay Area jobs."

Hart still faulted the Care Not Cash program for the meager monthly benefits. "However, a $59 grant, or $63, depending on the program, is just not adequate. You can't live on it even with the food stamp benefit."

I pointed out the numbers of advocates who think Newsom simply wants to further his political career, that he has found an angle, and that is homelessness.

Hart has talked to Newsom and disagreed with his ideas. He believes, however, Newsom's true intent is to stop homelessness. "He knows he's not going to stop homelessness, but I think he believes that we can rehabilitate, and we can get a lot of homeless people off the streets - perhaps with services, making them more productive for themselves in life, and for other human beings."

Despite the positive reports of Newsom's approach, Hart was adamant that "Newsom has taken most of this off the backs of those receiving CAAP benefits. He has reduced their grant inhumanely, promising them housing if they go into a shelter transitionally. Those that may have been there a year will say, 'Screw this. I'm out of here.' A year in a shelter, when they agreed to go in there with promises of housing! How long should they wait?"

Even though Care Not Cash is working to some extent, perhaps the average San Franciscan barely perceives that the volume of 12,000 to 16,000 homeless people makes the process very slow.

The real nature of SROs

Asked where Newsom would find housing for all these thousands of people, Hart replied, "Newsom had to start some place. He focused on increasing the availability of the single room occupancy hotels (SROs)."

Newsom envisioned the solution was to negotiate with owners of rundown hotels, entice them to fix them up and enter into a Master Lease program with the County. "He's done that successfully," Hart said. "They've cleaned up many rundown hellholes and enticed these owners. You're guaranteed your rent. The County will pay for it! If we agree, we will occupy 100 of your rooms after you fixed it up, we will pay for that. You've got guaranteed occupancy."

Dominic reports that he saw a SRO hotel room while helping a friend move. It was a cubicle without a window. You shared a bathroom down a hall, and were not allowed visitors, inviting depression. If this was the pot of gold at the end of the Care Not Cash rainbow, he felt the program wasn't worth the 20-interview-a-month job-hunting process for $59.

Are there enough places?

Significantly, the public may not fully grasp it will take many years before San Francisco can provide housing for 12,000 to 16,000 people on the streets.

Will there be enough places? "No! No!" said Hart. "Definitely not enough to house 12,000 to 16,000."

As of April 30, 2004, 2,600-plus were homeless on Care Not Cash. Those were the ones Newsom told, "You may have to stay in a shelter transitionally until we can get you into housing."

According to Hart, the public also does not understand that Newsom made this promise to only the smaller group of people receiving Care Not Cash. The larger group of 12,000 to 16,000 homeless people were not promised that.

"We went on exit interviews and explained this to them," Hart said. "The general consensus (was), 'I voted for it because I'm sick of homelessness, and he's going to do something about it.' But, Care Not Cash only applied to less than 3,000 of the 12,000 to 16,000 that were homeless at the time. What about all the others?"

Hart highlighted the lack of fairness and incorrect priorities in shelter placement that allowed Dominic Simeo and Manhattan Dave to be placed ahead of people waiting for shelter for eight months or more.

"There is no plan to prioritize those people that have been waiting in transitional shelters without permanent housing," Hart said. "They run the same lottery and the same gamble as anybody else. They see their worker once a month. If housing is available, they'll be offered it. If it's not, they're still in the shelter under Care Not Cash, transitionally."
Of the people put into transitional shelters - about 550 occupied beds - Trent Rhorer, head of the Department of Human Services, cannot provide the statistics telling advocates how long those individuals have been there. Said Hart, "We believe some of them have been there almost since the time Care Not Cash started when it was implemented in May of 2004."

"I don't think they feel it is a priority as we do," said Hart. "We advocates believe it is a political hot potato. We could go to the press and the public and say, "These people were promised transitional housing. They are not getting it. They are staying in the shelter bed. How long are they expected to do that with a $59 grant? Listen to us. This is one reason Care Not Cash isn't working."

There is no visible record keeping for the length of these transitional shelter stays. Homeless advocates are demanding to know how many of those people have transitioned out of a shelter into housing.

Hart said, "The people that accepted the transitional shelter have the right to know how long they are going to end up having to wait for it while other people (the chronically homeless) are getting it on demand and applying for C.A.A.P. or being picked up off the streets by workers when they are not on C.A.A.P. and taking up those SROs."

City officials, he said, should "define that your shelter stay is going to be only so long, and, if we can't get you housing before that time lapses, then we will restore your grant - the $198.00 that the State says is for housing, and also restore the utilities of $41.00."

Hart thinks the Board of Supervisors should step in and take action to rectify this unfairness. "If your shelter stay exceeds so many months, and you are not offered permanent housing like Care Not Cash promises you, you, in fact, get your full grant restored, or you stay on a waiting list, or you can stay in the shelter with your full grant until housing is available to you. That would have been (what to do)."

Is homelessness shrinking?

Doing simple math, there are a total of 12,000 to 16,000 people homeless in San Francisco. The Care Not Cash program applies to only 2,600 to 3,000 people, with 600 to 800 reportedly housed in SROs, and 550 in shelters, with a total of 1,150 to 1,350 unaccounted for.

There is another way the non-release of statistics confuses an accurate Care Not Cash count, said Hart. "Trent Rhorer who runs the Human Services Department, and Gavin Newsom, are convincing the press that, `Oh, these people were probably illegally here getting San Francisco's cash-rich benefits, getting it illegally. They've gone.'

"That could be. We agree a lot of people were getting the benefits illegally because it was so simple to get. But, we believe that there are still hundreds and hundreds who've dropped off Care Not Cash that are still living on the streets of San Francisco, and they are panhandling; they are stealing; they are prostituting to survive. Animalistically, they will do anything to survive."

Hart questioned the economics of Newsom's program. "They reduced the grants of people they've thrown into shelters. They take away almost $290.00 every month. You annualize that! With 500 in the shelter, they are saving millions and millions of dollars, which is supposed to be put into housing. While they are trying to increase housing, they still have a promise, a commitment made to these people in the shelters that have sat there for so long."

Current scene on the streets

Aggressive panhandling continues with force on the streets. Care Not Cash pays rent for Mama and Papa Bear in the Seneca Hotel. However, she cannot buy food, shampoo and soap on the meager grant she receives per month. She sits out "panning" every day, so she and her husband can eat.

Bill Hart reported that more homeless people are screaming in frustration at service providers, complaining they cannot live on $59 a month.

Many people, like Shorty and Wildman, are San Francisco natives, destroying the myth that the bulk of the homeless are people from elsewhere here to get drugs and feed off the system.

People like Manhattan Dave, Minnesota Traveler, and Dominic Simeo still travel cross-country. Dark Glasses Anonymous, Wayne's World, and J.C. Jack hail from Berkeley. Neither Dominic nor Manhattan Dave came in search of drugs. As a 14-year recovering addict, David attends three meetings a day, and tries to "stay around positive people." If Care Not Cash was intended to discourage anybody from coming to San Francisco, it has certainly failed here.

I asked Bill Hart whether, as some advocates speculate, Care Not Cash's actual agenda is to force the homeless to leave town by making it so difficult to live here, with General Assistance benefits so complicated, and the wait to get out of bug-infested shelters into housing so long that they find the whole thing unwieldy, and just give up and go away.

Hart's immediate response was that the availability of drugs makes San Francisco an attractive magnet. If people walk three blocks, they can get any kind of drug they want within an hour. "Let's face it," he said. "San Francisco has a heavy population of addicts living homeless on the streets, many of which are not, in fact, receiving C.A.A.P. benefits, (or) SSI benefits. Many are receiving nothing because they are fleeing felons and can't be eligible for benefits."

Wayne stated, "The drug problem in San Francisco is huge beyond your imagination, much worse than people realize." He believed the homeless were now forced to jump through so many hoops "because people became too complacent and dependent" upon San Francisco homeless services. He added, "They have gone out of their way to make it difficult to be a freeloader here anymore. There is no way you can go through all the hoops if you're on drugs. You'll wash out of the system and be back on the sidewalk."

Long waits for a bed

Because 60 to 80 beds a night are reserved for the core group of Care Not Cash participants, all the rest must wait two to four hours outside a Service Center for a one-night stay. If they cannot get to the assigned shelter in time, or no bed is available, they must do what Wildman did, "ride the bus all night until the driver throws you off, then sleep in a doorway to keep out of the rain."

Care Not Cash cots are usually tied up, except in cases where you are known and liked by the shelter staff. According to the "Care Not Cash Fact Sheet," the majority of cots at service-enriched shelters go to Care Not Cash.

Sympathetic directors allowed Manhattan Dave and Dominic Simeo directly into shelter. Mama and Papa Bear, desperate to get off the street, were housed faster, ahead of others on the list because they played the system, made friends, and followed the rules.

Insomnia forced Dark Glasses Anonymous from the shelter at MSC South. He had difficulty sleeping with a lot of people around. There was a wall where everybody watched each other's backs. Still, he had to drag his gear with him to the bathroom at night to prevent thefts. Even though he tied them to his suitcase, a pair or steel-toe boots disappeared in two days. "You're dealing with a lot of people who are highly institutionalized in shelters or prison," he said.

Care Not Cash job search

Dominic Simeo reported that the required job search of 20 contacts a month was too difficult for him to finish even ten. He complained that prospective employers cannot call you back; and if they do so at the call center, you cannot hear the interview because of the din behind you. Many job seekers miss callbacks because they are without a phone.

The system seems set up to make you fail. Said Wayne, "Every time I've even gotten anything to get to the next (step), it gets pulled out from underneath me. Yeah. It's pretty horrible."

Discrimination was reported against one disabled person, a friend of Simeo's with a mental problem who was fighting being thrown off Care Not Cash for not filling out a form properly, a mistake caused by his disability.

J.C. Jack told me he would not participate in Care Not Cash because Newsom, though not the devil himself, was one of his denizens.

As he readied himself to leave town, Dominic Simeo told me that Gavin Newsom should look down from his palatial height where he probably has no idea what it is like to be homeless. He suggested he try it out for one night.

**********
THANKS - My deepest thanks to each unhoused person for your incredible toughness, resourcefulness, and creativity. You are the Supreme Survivors, and you will prevail.

Carol

Dominic Simeo for an objective observer’s insights into San Francisco,
Backpack Slim for the homeless car wash idea,
Mama and Papa Bear for warmth and openness,
Manhattan Dave for being a good Dad,
Wayne’s World for being a loving person,
Wildman for his poetic intelligence and wit,
Anonymous In Dark Glasses’ for a brilliant future in the biotechnology industry,
J.C. Jack for his hard grasp on Reality and Care Not Cash.
Wanda for lovely word salad metaphor,
Peter on Clement, good wishes to get on the transplant list,
Minnesota Wanderer for clarifying, “The Word `Politics’ comes from `Polite,’ but Polite It Ain’t.”
Working Woman for unmasking the Resource Center.

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