We Kept Our Eyes Trained on Home

This fall, the Coalition on Homeless has been working hard to pass Proposition C and finally make systemic changes to address homelessness. Now that it has passed, I reflect on the years of work our collective put in to finally get here.

The history of Proposition C can go back decades, representing years of struggle, failure, victories, learning, building, crying until there were no tears to shed, of trying a new path. There were many different perspectives on solutions, but along the way we never let ourselves get lost. We kept our eyes trained on home, and we won in a landslide victory.

I keep press clippings of whenever the Coalition on Homelessness is mentioned in the print media, and in preparation for my first meeting with Marc Benioff, I went back to find a specific article from 2011, in which this particular philanthropist and a homeless family represented an intersection of ideas. It would not be the last time our paths intersected.

At the time the article was published, Oshun Women’s Drop-In center was a place where women with children who had nowhere to go, could sleep on mats on the floors. “Oshun” is the Yoruba goddess of healing, or of love and sweet healing water. This drop-in center’s very existence is rooted in our struggle, the result of Black women fighting for a place of their own and securing the funding to open a women-centered and family members inclusive space that would transform the blocks surrounding it.

For a while, the promise held: childcare, benefits advocacy, trauma centered care, a community kitchen, afro-centric healing all took place.  But, budget cuts, mismanagement, neglect and finally a loss of their lease led to its move to another space, under a freeway and far away from its roots. After the contract changed hands, and then changed hands again, the space turned into a women’s drop-in, and eventually families with children were ejected except for minimum showers in the morning. The drop-in remains one of the saddest places in San Francisco, a cold, barren place where elderly and disabled women sit in chairs day and night.  But it is at least a safe place off the streets, with showers and bathrooms, offering that very tiny bit of dignity.

Back in 2011, the numbers of homeless children in public schools were exploding due to the recession, and this turmoil was having an impact on education for children, so we pitched this story to Jill Tucker of the San Francisco Chronicle (https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/S-F-schools-struggle-with-more-homeless-kids-2345204.php).  Marc Benioff, head of the city’s largest employing company and in particular, his wife, Lynne took notice of the article and thus began their journey of numerous large financial investments in ending family homelessness. We didn’t know then that our paths would meet again, one month before the November, 2018 election.

The loss of the dream of the Oshun Center, is one of many losses we have faced in this work.  I have lost good close friends killed by the effects of homelessness – to suicide, to overdose, to bad medical care, to premature deaths from diseases brought on by sleep deprivation. We have lost many programs we have fought for, and we have lost many times at the ballot box.  People often ask me how I continue to do this work, but I feel like they are really asking why, why not give up, why fight the same fight year after year, why not quit years ago with so much defeat, and loss. I usually respond that I do this work because I see it as a place where various forms of oppression meet. Racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism are all drivers of the homeless crisis.  Homeless people are the living reflection of severe economic injustice. Their faces are maps of suffering, of the real life results of unfettered capitalism and collective neglect through inaction. Their early deaths a quiet reminder of our failure as a progressive city.

Other times I respond that for San Francisco, homelessness is one of the last frontiers in a struggle against hate.  Homeless people have been used as political scapegoats for the past three decades. In just about every mayoral campaign they have been vilified. Voter initiatives called for their jailing for asking for alms, or sitting or resting during daytime hours, while another called for ripping away their tents in exchange for an offer of one night in shelter.  In each of these campaigns, greater forces were at work, and homeless people were pawns in a chess game that sought more power for downtown interests. Other voter initiatives were designed-to-fail endeavors, like “Care Not Cash” or the sales tax initiative that forced the poorest people to pay the most and that were really meant to bring name recognition to an up-and-coming politician rather than truly address the crisis. Year after year, the number of people experiencing homelessness climbed upwards, while their health deteriorated rapidly, and decades were shaved off their lives.

Meanwhile the call for a radical change was growing.

Social change can only be realized when the right conditions are in place. Conditions that are seeded and grown over time through the hard work of community organizing. It took decades of work around homelessness in San Francisco to create the conditions for lasting change that Proposition C represents. Decades of leadership work, developing strong alliances with other community organizations and labor unions, protesting, developing policy, engaging in tireless media work and pushing for legal action.  We effectively pushed back against the dehumanization of a population and their use as political wedges by hateful forces, while we continued to put out messages of hope and possibility.

The occupy movement built tents in public squares, and many homeless people joined them in struggle. Long after housed movement members took down their tents, homeless people kept theirs up. They offered a modicum of privacy and dignity, and also lent a visibility to the homeless crisis that did not exist previously. Mass displacement meant every day San Franciscans were relating to homeless people for the first time in decades. They saw themselves—precarious and threatened—in the faces of homeless people.

Meanwhile, a court ruling opened up the opportunity to pass Prop. C with a simple majority, rather than two-thirds.  While this was being challenged, and our own measure will likely be challenged because we failed to get two-thirds voter approval, it was still worth trying, because the likelihood of success in the courtroom is and was high. We also needed to make sure there was not a lot of competing measures on the ballot – this had hurt us in the past.  We were able to convince our allies to get behind our measure instead of offering a number of competing revenue measures. They agreed. Lastly, a Trump Tax giveaway dropped the federal corporate taxes by 40% and gave us the opportunity to capture that revenue and use it to bring thousands of San Franciscans inside homes. This was our moment. Learning from the past losses of politically driven measures, we crafted a measure that was big and bold, with an income source that draws only from those who could truly afford to pay.

Over the course of ten months, we gathered data, solicited input, held presentations, conducted a poll, and hired lawyers to draft a measure. We went through dozens of drafts, soliciting and including input from hundreds of policy makers, elected officials, homeless people, front-line service providers, business leaders, department heads, and every major mayoral candidate. We made sure we had a strong implementation plan and knew exactly what could be achieved and how.  We had inclusive meetings that all stakeholders were invited to attend and honed the language until we were collectively satisfied with the results. Our first hurdle was jumped. We had some basic considerations: the initiative needed to be big and to take a massive bite out of homelessness. We wanted to go upstream and ensure we kept San Franciscans in their homes. We wanted children and young people to have the housing they need to prevent a whole new generation of homelessness. We wanted the measure to be holistic, and to address the issue from all sides. After careful consideration we decided to name the measure “Our City, Our Home”, coined by long-time housing activist Krea Gomez. The name was chosen to embrace San Francisco’s civic pride, inclusiveness, and housing as a human right.

This May we invited three amazing women to be our proponents; Jacquelynne Evans, a community leader and recently homeless mother; Christin Evans, small business owner and president of Haight Merchants Association; and Lauren Hall, Co-Director of DISH, a supportive housing organization. We submitted “Our City, Our Home” for title and summary and started gathering signatures. We were nervous and recognized that gathering the required nine thousand signatures was a huge undertaking. From May through the beginning of July we amassed over seven hundred volunteer signature gatherers. It turned out that we didn’t need to be nervous. We gathered a whopping (and potentially record breaking) twenty-eight thousand signatures which catapulted us over the finish line. We were on the ballot!

We were riding high on a wave of people power moving into the last few weeks of the campaign. The campaign caught fire, and a movement was birthed. Beginning in July, the Coalition worked to build bridges to expand the campaign. Organizations who had traditionally been at odds with each other all came on board, from groups like SPUR, Council of Community Housing Organizations, Harvey Milk Democratic Party, Alice B. Toklias Democratic Club and Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods. We gathered together ballot arguments from diverse San Franciscans and a host of elected leaders. We had raised about $450,000 from a variety of donors including community activists, tech workers, unions, community organizations and more. We started a strong field campaign early—walking districts and making calls. We had successful Chinese and Spanish components and won a ton of earned media. People were feeling it. The campaign spoke to the deep, ongoing struggle for equity that San Franciscans are critically aware of. We garnered the endorsements of Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier, then got Dianne Feinstein. Support just kept rolling in. One month prior to the vote, Mayor Breed came out against the measure. A day following the Mayor’s announcement, the Coalition on Homelessness and Salesforce Co-CEO Marc Benioff crossed paths again in, of all places, a fateful late-night Twitter exchange between the billionaire and Booksmith owner, Christin Evans. Benioff came out in favor of Prop. C.

The final month was a whirlwind and took and interesting turn.  With CEO Benioff on board and sparring with other CEOs on Twitter in defense of Prop C, international attention turned to our race.  With millions of dollars from Benioff were able to hire 200 homeless people to rapidly make phone calls to voters, and we had a robust advertising budget on cable, broadcast and digital media. We did innovative things, like skywriting and billboards.  The people power was enormous and combined with what usually only happens in well-funded conservative campaigns, we were able to have a powerful combination of people power and advertising. We were able with the additional resources to go deep across San Francisco, to overcome the cynicism so many San Franciscans feel, fueled by decades of miseducation on the issue, the false promises and feeling that nothing would work. We were able to humanize homelessness with the extra support from Salesforce and Benioff, we were able to reach across our divisions and change the culture – change necessary to forge lasting change.  In the end we won 80% of the precincts and Proposition C passed in every Supervisorial district in the city!

Reaching two-thirds is almost impossible with opposition.  While we didn’t get it, and are now susceptible to a lawsuit, we built the political will necessary to bring us to the finish line. The lawsuit is just another hurdle we will jump over. We now face the work of making sure our vision is implemented in a way that is centered on the experiences and needs of homeless people, and is data driven to ensure best results. While this measure is in the courts we will dedicate ourselves to outreaching to folks who have experienced homelessness who could be on the oversight body, to collecting data from homeless people directly on how best to use these funds and to getting everything in place to make sure that when the funds are released, every project is designed and shovel ready.

There is a lot to learn from this campaign, and one of the biggest lessons is that in order to succeed we must inspire the hearts and imaginations of our allies. Together we can end the plague of apathy. This was an uncompromising measure that directly corrected some of the severe inequities that concerns so many of us who love this city.  The measure taxes only the wealthiest corporations and houses the very poorest people. There is a simple beauty in that. A beauty that inspired thousands of San Franciscans to support this campaign.

For Rudy, the young boy featured in the SF Chronicle story in 2011, we can never take back the harm that was done to him by an affluent society that allows its poorest children to suffer so severely, as described in his words, “Mom, I’m cold, I’m hungry … it’s pretty bad”.  But we can make sure that the next generation has a safe and decent place to call home. Someday we’ll look back from a future in which everyone has a home and shake our heads in wonder at how we ever let things get so bad. Our heartfelt thanks to San Francisco and all those wonderful warriors who poured their sweat and tears into lifting us towards justice.  Hasta la Victoria!