San Francisco mulls Guiliani-style tough love

Sunday, April 14, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- For morning commuters, it's an assault on the senses. First, the stench of urine as they emerge from the subway. Then the sight of crack sellers, heroin users and the people using the sidewalk as a toilet.

A wagon train of shopping carts, stacks of bedrolls and sprawled drunken bodies also tell the story of the homeless who have migrated to one of the world's most tolerant cities, where street people get cash handouts of more than $300 a month.

Now, some say San Francisco's compassion is threatening its other reputation as one of the world's most visited and loved cities. And that has prompted some residents, businesses and city leaders to rethink their definition of liberal.

Gavin Newsom, an up-and-coming city supervisor who is expected to run for mayor next year, has proposed tough measures to solve the problem, taking risks that have meant political suicide for a succession of other city leaders. With little open support from his colleagues, he may go to the voters, putting his proposals on the city's ballot this fall.

He says it's time to end the status quo. He's even looked to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who cleaned up that city's streets by taking on "quality of life" crimes.

"I'm the antithesis of Giuliani. I'm a liberal, but I'm also now maturing to this principle," said Newsom. "I think Giuliani is right and San Francisco is wrong: It is not compassionate to let people die on the street or feed their addictions."

160 die per year

An estimated 160 homeless people die in San Francisco each year.

Newsom wants to fine or jail panhandlers standing in street medians. He also wants to cut the city's homeless handout, which ranges from $320 to $395 a month, dispensed by check every two weeks.

Newsom is under attack from a vocal group of homeless advocates, but he says he's getting mounds of letters, e-mails and phone calls that are thankful that someone is finally cracking down.

"You would expect sits-ins and screaming," said Richard DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University and longtime observer of city policies. "But we didn't get any of that kind of shrieking."

Despite his proposal to fine panhandlers $500 or send them to jail, Newsom says he isn't advocating locking up the city's estimated 7,300 homeless or shoving them out of sight. He says the answer hinges instead on a "combination of tough love but adequate services."

That combination is what worked in New York, said Steven Cohen, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. Giuliani banned sleeping on sidewalks and enforced laws against such offenses as public urination, but he also increased services. "The question is whether you can do both, and Giuliani did it," Cohen said.

Newsom wants apartments for the homeless to help them get their lives back on track -- a place they can call home without worrying about security or getting kicked back onto the streets when shelters close each morning. He also wants a centralized database to track the handouts and services to make sure the city's generosity is not being exploited.

Cash allowances

He proposes reallocating cash allowances -- nearly $11 million annually given to about 2,500 people -- to affordable housing and treatment programs. The cash handouts fall short of paying for any type of housing in one of the nation's most expensive cities.

Newsom believes much of the money is being drunk, smoked and injected by the recipients.

Newsom's ideas frighten Shannon Jurglewich, who picked up her check recently at a Money Mart in the Mission District. She was shocked to learn that Newsom would slash her monthly allowance to $57.

It costs at least $175 a week to sleep in a residential hotel, which limits her stay to a few nights a month. She said she spends the rest of her check on food, hygiene products and laundry.

"People who screw around with their money, they're messing it up for everybody else," she said. "If they drop it, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Sympathy for people like Jurglewich has thwarted other politicians who tried to tackle the homeless problem.

Mayor Willie Brown, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits, promised to convene a summit on homelessness before he took office in 1996, but later said the problem couldn't be solved. He endorsed a plan to seize the shopping carts stolen by the homeless to carry their meager belongings, then backed off amid fierce protests.

The city now takes carts when they're unattended -- spending nearly $650,000 annually to collect, clean and store them. The belongings are kept for 90 days, even though most are never retrieved.

Prior attempts

Before Brown, Mayor Frank Jordan planned a police crackdown on street people and got tossed out of office. Mayor Art Agnos also lost re-election, after failing to quickly break up a homeless encampment that became known as "Camp Agnos."

Newsom won't succeed in "making being poor illegal either," vows Chance Martin of the city's Coalition on Homelessness.

"We've seen just about every piece of legislation he's proposed before and we've defeated them all before," said Martin, who has been homeless himself.

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