We Kept Our Eyes Trained on Home

In 2018, the Coalition on Homelessness worked hard to craft and then pass Proposition C, “Our City Our Home,” to make significant systemic changes to address homelessness. The measure, which taxes the most profitable San Francisco corporations with annual incomes over $50 million an average of one-half percent, garners around $300 million for homelessness every year. At least half of the funding must go to housing, and at least a quarter must go to mental health and substance use treatment. At most, 10% can go to shelter, and at most 15% to prevent homelessness.

The measure will help stop an intergenerational cycle of severe poverty and homelessness and ensure San Franciscans have the opportunity to flourish. It works to prevent people from entering homelessness in the first place, and when homelessness is unpreventable, the measure works to ensure it’s brief. We heavily invested in the housing piece because we believe it is impossible to address unemployment, health and behavioral issues without stable housing. 

With a tremendous people-powered effort we passed this legislation, moving us toward a San Francisco in which every person has safe and permanent housing. But the story of Prop. C started long before that election and reflects years of collective work to finally get here.

The history of Proposition C goes back decades and spans years of struggle, failure, victories, learning, building, crying until there were no tears left to shed. But along the way, we never let ourselves get lost. We kept our eyes trained on home, and we won a landslide victory.

Social change can only be realized when the right conditions are in place: conditions that grow over time through the hard work of community organizing. Homelessness is where various forms of oppression meet: Racism, homophobia, ableism and 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 are a quiet reminder of our failure as a progressive city. Homeless people have been used as political scapegoats and wedges for the past three decades. In just about every mayoral campaign since Dianne Feinstein’s, they have been vilified. Voter initiatives called for their jailing for asking for alms, or for 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, homeless people were treated like pawns in a chess game that sought more power for downtown interests. Other voter initiatives were designed to fail, like “Care Not Cash” or the sales tax initiative that forced the poorest people to pay the most, which were really meant to bring name recognition to an up-and-coming politician such as Gavin Newsom or Mark Farrell rather than truly address the crisis. Year after year, more and more people entered homelessness, while their health deteriorated rapidly, and decades were shaved off their lives. These backwards-pushing forces meant it took decades of work, together with key partners in San Francisco, to create the conditions for lasting change that Proposition C represents. It took 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 pushed back effectively 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.

About a decade ago, the Occupy movement set up tents in public squares, and many homeless people joined the struggle. But 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 everyday 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. 

A court ruling on a marijuana dispensary case opened up the opportunity to pass Prop. C with a simple majority of voters, rather than two-thirds. While we knew we would be sued if we didn’t reach two-thirds, it was still worth trying, because the likelihood of success in the courtroom was high. We also needed to make sure there were not a lot of competing measures on the ballot–this had hurt us in the past. We were able to persuade our allies into getting behind our measure instead of offering competing revenue measures. Lastly, a Trump tax giveaway dropped the federal corporate taxes by 40 percent 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. 

Meanwhile, the call for a radical change was growing. 

Over the course of 10 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 policymakers, elected officials, homeless people, front-line service providers, business leaders, City 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. We had jumped our first hurdle.

We had some basic requirements: The initiative needed to be big and take a massive bite out of homelessness. We wanted to not just address the needs of those who were already homeless, we also wanted to ensure we kept precariously housed 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. After careful consideration, we decided to name the measure “Our City, Our Home,” coined by Krea Gomez, a longtime housing activist and director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center. The name was chosen to embrace San Francisco’s civic pride and inclusiveness, as well as the principle of ensuring housing as a human right.

In May 2018, we invited three amazing women to be our proponents: Jacquelynne Evans, a community leader and recently homeless mother; Christin Evans, a 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” to the Department of Elections, and once the wording of the measure was approved we started gathering signatures. We were nervous and recognized that gathering the required 9,000 signatures was a huge undertaking. From May through the beginning of July we recruited over 700 volunteer signature gatherers. It turned out that we didn’t need to be nervous. We gathered a whopping (and potentially record-breaking) 28,000 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. Beginning in July, the Coalition worked to expand the campaign. Organizations that had traditionally been at odds all came on board, including SPUR, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, the Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas Democratic Clubs, and the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods. We gathered ballot arguments from a diverse group of 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-speaking organizing teams and our campaigns were widely covered by diverse media outlets. The campaign spoke to the deep, ongoing struggle for equity that San Franciscans are critically aware of. We garnered the endorsements of Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier, then got Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Support just kept rolling in. 

One month before the vote, Mayor London Breed came out against the measure, alongside State Sen. Scott Wiener and then-Assemblymember David Chiu. A day after the Mayor’s announcement, the Our City, Our Home campaign and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff crossed paths in, of all places, a fateful late-night Twitter exchange between the billionaire and Booksmith owner, Christin Evans. After heated discussions with Evans, Benioff came out in favor of Prop. C.

The final month before the election was a whirlwind. With 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, we hired 200 homeless people to make phone calls to over 93,000 voters, and launched cable, broadcast and digital advertising. We did innovative things, like skywriting and billboards. 

“I worked on the Prop. C campaign because I thought it would be beneficial for homeless people—I was homeless for six years and thought it would be a good use of my time,” said Anubis Daughtery, a formerly homeless person who volunteered on the campaign. “Prop. C was different because it came from the Coalition on Homelessness. It didn’t come from a politician. Historically, when it comes to homelessness and homeless issues, politicians have adversely affected said issues, and Prop. C was better because it came from people who knew better, it came from what homeless people wanted.” 

With the additional resources, we were able to overcome the cynicism that so many San Franciscans feel, a cynicism fueled by decades of miseducation and false promises. On November 6, 2018 Proposition C – Our City Our Home – was passed with 62% of voter support. In the end, we won 80% of the precincts and Proposition C passed in every supervisorial district in the city!

However, our victory was short-lived. We were sued. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, along with the California Business Roundtable and California Properties Business Association, filed suit over Prop. C, arguing that the measure needed a two-thirds majority. However, City Attorney Dennis Herrera argued against this, citing  California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland, which details that if a measure for new taxes is put on by the public citizens and not the City government, said measure only needs a simple majority, or 50% plus one vote.

While we were fighting in the courts, we dedicated ourselves to contacting folks who have experienced homelessness who could be on an oversight body that would survey homeless people on how best to use these funds, and to preparing the projects for when funding would be released. We engaged in an in-depth study, working with four different universities and hiring unhoused peer researchers to conduct almost 600 interviews with unhoused community members on their experiences within the homeless response system and what needed to change. The results suggested a deeply flawed system that sent folks in and out of housing, treatment, and shelter, but ultimately back on the streets in a cruel churn. We entitled the report “Stop the Revolving Door.” 

While Prop C didn’t get two-thirds of the vote, we built the political will necessary to bring us to the finish line. The lawsuit only delayed the release of the funds. We won in October 2020, and the funds were finally available. While the City Attorney Herrera went to bat for Prop C in court, it was our legal team that won the lawsuit. When making our case at every level of the courts, our side cited the amicus briefs of our allies. The City Attorney never used our arguments, but in the end that didn’t matter. Prop. C was not only a victory for homeless people, it was a victory for democracy in California. Because of us, special taxes — those taxes that fund specific things — only require a simple majority to pass. 

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. Once the court case was won, the funds were available and had accumulated over two years. The Our City, Our Home oversight body was seated, and we went through a process of gathering even more input from over 800 unhoused people and service providers on how best to spend the funds, examining best practices and data. In the first year after the release of the funds there have been two major releases of funds at the Board of Supervisors. Cumulatively they will achieve:

•    Over 1,000 adults, families and youth will have rental assistance to afford their own housing.

•    ​​At least 1,187 units will be purchased with funding for operating costs for adults, families and youth

•    There will be 343 additional behavioral health beds, plus over $100 million for acquiring facilities to add an undetermined number of treatment beds. 

•    Eviction prevention legal services and back rent will be available for 7,000 households

•    1,000 new shelter beds will be made available in a variety of settings including organized tent villages, trailers, RV parks, hotel rooms and permanent dignified private room emergency shelter for families. 

And that’s just the start. In the coming years, the system will be transformed with budding capacity to turn around the homeless crisis, especially if leveraged with state and federal investment. For decades we have struggled through a system built on the idea that if you make homelessness undignified and miserable for people, they will simply. Prop C moves us toward a new system that keeps people in their homes and quickly moves people out of homelessness before deep harm sets in. This will take decades to build. The harm done to unhoused people who have been homeless for decades will not be easy to turn around. Building out the system, acquiring buildings, training and hiring staff will take time. But once the system is up and running, we can stop the inflow into homelessness, and have enough turnaround in our system so people don’t have to wait years for housing. 

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 concern 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. 

We can never take back the harm that has been done to the thousands of unhoused San Franciscans by an affluent society that allows its poorest people to suffer so severely. 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!