Meanwhile, advocates advise San Francisco on homelessness funding
“The Court of Appeal Decision stands. Proposition C is valid.
That was the announcement I received via Facebook Messenger on Wednesday, September 8 about Prop. C taking effect.
After almost two years, the measure known as “Our City, Our Home” can now live up to the promise of its name, affirming that I’m part of a city committed to housing homeless people and keeping them housed.
In the November 2018 election, 61% of San Francisco voters approved of the City taxing wealthy corporations to fund homelessness programs, mental health and substance use treatment programs, and eviction defense efforts.
But an anti-tax group and big business associations filed a lawsuit against the City to prevent Prop. C from taking effect. They argued that Prop. C proponents needed a two-thirds supermajority, not a simple majority, to pass.
However, the City Attorney’s office maintained that a citizen-driven revenue measure only needs 50 percent plus 1, and the San Francisco Superior Court and California Court of Appeal agreed, thus solidifying its electoral victory.
Now, almost a half-billion dollars that have been collected and sitting in escrow is now unlocked, more than doubling the amount of homeless expenditures — benefitting over 10,000 unhoused San Franciscans.
Under Prop. C, the funds will be disbursed this way: 50% will go to housing, 25% to mental health and substance use services, 15% to rental assistance and eviction defense programs and 10% to emergency shelter and drop-in hygiene programs. An oversight committee will watch over how funds are spent.
Added to the $300 million San Francisco already dedicates to homeless services, this funding will go a long way in addressing this systemic problem — as well as challenges specific to the unhoused people who shared with me their stories, experiences, meals and shelter space.
That leads me to the beauty of the measure: the true experts on homelessness — unhoused folk themselves — were consulted in drafting that measure. About 300 unhoused people were hired in phone banks, calling some 90,000 voters. Allies from health networks, community-based organizations, service providers and faith communities also joined our successful campaign.
Still, homeless advocates felt the need to remind the gravity of the situation to the public when Prop. C was in litigation. To that end, the Coalition on Homelessness again relied on unhoused people’s expertise when it conducted a needs assessment study.
Six hundred homeless and marginally housed people were surveyed and interviewed by a team of peer researchers — including myself — who share or have shared their lived experience. They provided input on what the new system would look after the influx of Prop. C funds and how it would work to prevent homelessness, as well as pave exits from homelessness.
Why did survey participants lose their housing? Mostly, it was due to lack of affordability. The factors most reported behind their displacement were job loss and low incomes unable to keep pace with high rents. Rental assistance, if it were made available, would have kept them in their homes, one third of them responded.
Aid to tenants was just one of 102 policy recommendations spelled out in the study. Among others were: making housing case management available, increased and enhanced permanent supportive housing, fully implementing treatment on demand, intensive case management for mental health clients, developing alternatives to a police-centered approach to mental health, gender-affirming services for transgender people.
Significantly, the myth of “service resistance” — declining shelter and treatment in favor of street life — was debunked. When survey participants were asked about shelter, a majority said they preferred legal campsites with private tents, showers, bathrooms and basic security over the existing shelter system.
The impact of Prop. C will be wide-ranging, said study team members, from stress relief to reduced trauma to greater inclusion of marginalized communities.
Jazmin Frias, a peer researcher and focus group facilitator among Spanish speakers, noted that Prop. C would provide an ounce of prevention in the form of subsidies and tenant protections that’s worth a pound of housing stability cure.
“My life would change drastically under Prop. C,” she told project researchers. “It would give me and all of these families a great amount of peace to be able to have somewhere stable to go home to … not having to worry about if the police is going to remove you at three in the morning with all the children because we are parked on the side of the street. Our children will grow up with less traumas because parents will not be overworked to keep a stable home that leads for more family time and more happy memories.”
Another takeaway is housing as a form of harm reduction. Half of the people who report a substance use issue remain untreated, largely because of such barriers to treatment as waitlists, lack of beds, difficulty in navigating the system and overly strict treatment rules.
In the report, Lisseth Sanchez of Mujeres Latinas en Accion pointed out the benefit of housing and treatment, especially to unhoused subpopulations in the transgender and Latinx communities, as well as other working in underground economies.
“One big impact of Prop. C would be lowering the use of substances because TransLatina women would have opportunities to be in things that actually benefit us,” Sanchez said. “How are you supposed to be OK if the night before you needed to exchange sex for a place to live or being up all night waiting for a client to pay for a motel so you can rest? What we need is opportunity.”
Peer researcher Ms. Earl also indicated in the study that the measure would also partially act as a social corrective. Ms. Earl, who is a Black trans woman, said it would clear a path to housing for members of communities who have suffered injustice.
“Access and education are a big deal to my community,” she said. “There are lots of people who just don’t have access to services, housing or jobs because of their skin color, gender identity, criminal history or housing status. Prop. C is a way to rectify the systematic exclusion of people who daily face these oppressions.”
In their own way, the people I’ve interviewed, as a journalist or researcher, were performing a vital service: they were directing the City and County of San Francisco toward solutions. That reminds me of the adage about working with a specific group of people on an issue that affects them: “Nothing about us without us!”
TJ Johnston is a Community Advisory Board member at Tipping Point. He served as a peer researcher and editorial team member for “Stop the Revolving Door: A Street Level Framework for a New System.” A longtime journalist whose work has appeared in several media outlets, he writes and edits for Street Sheet, a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco.