Long before SF mayor Gavin Newsom became a liberal darling for decreeing gay marriage constitutional, he was a hated sleaze-ball with a too-perfect coif and a penchant for "DLC'ing" the poor. Evidence came through his signature initiative, Care Not Cash, which ended San Francisco's policy of handing checks to the homeless and plowed the savings into low-cost transitional housing offering an array of psychological and substance-abuse services. Most suspected the housing wouldn't work, wouldn't come online, or wouldn't be used, and the end result would simply be savings for the city and a worse lot for the poor. The suspicions provoked an outcry, and the outcry drove a strong Green Party challenge that almost denied Newsom the mayorship.
It was one of the more interesting intra-Democratic battles of recent years, very much akin to Clinton's welfare reform, though not done while held hostage to a Republican Congress. That meant Newsom had room to implement his policy as he wanted it and we can get a pretty good idea of how this sort of solution works. So*?
• 800 street people have been moved into "supporting housing" and general assistance rolls for the homeless have been slashed by 73%. That's a hell of a lot better than was expected, optimistic forecasts only saw a 50% reduction in the same timespan. It also means the program has more cash to put towards housing and services, as every dollar saved remains in the Care Not Cash system and is used to shelter more homeless.
• Many of the newly-housed have kept pan handling, as living on $59 a month is nearly impossible.
• It can take up to six months of shelter-living before you get housing.
• The housing, by general consensus, is great. Critics like it, the homeless love it, everyone agrees.
• The plan is focused on the chronically homeless, rather than those who crash with friends and are transient, but not constantly on the streets. That means those doing semi-okay are at a disadvantage compared to those truly living on the streets.
So on the plus side, the rooms are good, the homeless are using them, and the streets are gladly giving up some longtime residents. So far as the negatives go, the reduced checks aren't enough to live on, and more job training and placement is necessary. In addition, those who've been skating by but could use the assistance are being passed over in favor of those in tougher straits. My opinion? The program's a success, it's helping reduce the homeless population while giving a sense of dignity to some who've never had it before:
"I've been waiting four months for my room, and I'm getting it in a few days," said Brian Whitten, 47, at the Multi-Service Center South shelter. "I know it's hard to get by on $59 a month, but hell -- I want my first roof I've had a chance at for a bunch of years. I'll take care of the details once I'm in there."
That's as powerful an argument in favor as any I could think of. One thing about Care Not Cash and the better incarnations of Welfare Reform is that they take dignity seriously; they're consciously designed to integrate folks on the margins of society into America's ethos as well as it's wealth. Now, you can argue over whether or not that's a good thing, but it's an interesting component when compared to programs that do nothing save raising check recipients to a base level of subsistence. It's also something that liberalism, post-New Deal, kinda lost. Social Security was all over the idea of dignity in government help, but the battle's, at a certain point, lost the moral component and just kept fighting over the handout portion. Care Not Cash is a welcome departure from that sort of policy-making.
* Via Amy Alkon