Bummed out

San Francisco is the capital of bohemian liberalism. It's also a homeless horror show. On Tuesday voters will decide the limits of their compassion.

By Joan Walsh
Published November 4, 2002 10:01PM (UTC)
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The city of St. Francis, the capital of American liberalism, goes to the polls Tuesday for a vote on a ballot measure that's been described with only a little bit of melodrama as a struggle for the city's soul, and could be seen as a vote on the future of liberalism itself. San Francisco voters will decide if their famously tolerant city will follow the lead of most large American cities by slashing the cash grant it gives single homeless adults, providing vouchers for housing and services instead.

Known as Care not Cash, Prop. N has divided old friends and political allies, sparked fights and debate, street theater, vandalism and almost daily protest. Despite cries from homeless advocates, the liberal electorate that two years ago sent a lefty majority to the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote overwhelmingly for the measure, which has been bankrolled by conservatives and the business community. Its popularity reflects the growing sense of hopelessness, even among many liberals, over the two-decade-old, ever-worsening homeless crisis.


These are hard times in San Francisco. The high-tech party is over, this glittering dot-com capital is trying to get over its hangover, and the street people are like the phantoms of urban delirium: They're everywhere, increasingly scary and wild. Some sleep on the streets alone; some in vagrant tribes. On a recent Friday night in the Financial District, under the glare of an ambulance's red and orange lights, medical workers took care of one injured homeless man in the middle of a mini-encampment, while in a nearby doorway, another stood hunched over, pants around his knees, vomiting and defecating at the same time. A father and his two horrified young sons hurried past after dinner, rushing back to their car.

And they're not just downtown anymore. These days the homeless sleep in the doorways of closed businesses and failed restaurants, in parks and alleys, all over the city, and what to do about it is setting once-friendly neighbors against one other. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola brought down the wrath of nearby businesses by funding a homeless drop-in center in picturesque North Beach that critics say only attracted more street people to the area. In progressive Bernal Heights, there's increasing debate about the homeless folks camped on the neighborhood's landmark hill and in its parks. Business owners in the gay Castro district are saddled with the man who could be the poster boy for the Yes on N campaign: Paul Sanchez, a homeless alcoholic who's been arrested 128 times at last count, who has to be wrapped in a biohazard bag when he's picked up because he's covered in human waste, who spits in the face of the cops and nurses who try to help him.

So Prop. N seems almost unstoppable. Its opponents' only hope has been to demonize its sponsor, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who'd be a liberal in any other city but is on the right of the left-dominated board. Ever since Mayor Willie Brown appointed Newsom to fill a vacancy in February 1997, and he became the only straight white male on the 11-member board, he's been the face of evil to San Francisco's loud, lefty fringe. He wasn't just any straight white male, mind you, but a Marina-district millionaire restaurateur with a girlfriend (now wife) who's a model turned district attorney; a friend, protégé and business partner to two generations of one of the city's most powerful and patrician families, the Gettys, and lately, the business community's dreamboat candidate for mayor. San Francisco magazine put him on its cover a year ago, calling him a "West Coast Kennedy," and thanks to the photo of Newsom on the front -- his trademark gelled-back hair, his soulful blue eyes -- the issue could have been mistaken for GQ.


The profile was mostly flattering -- it noted that, despite his business ties, Newsom was one of the human service community's best friends, having sponsored drug-treatment on demand legislation -- but it did ask whether the likable fourth-generation San Franciscan was tough enough to govern this fractious city. That was before Prop. N, which has proven Newsom is tough, if nothing else. Opponents have set off stink bombs in his restaurants and clogged the phone lines with phony reservations, posted his photo and his home number and address on posters in the gay Castro district ("He's so hot, come party with Gavin Newsom"), hit him with pies, and picketed his City Hall office and his businesses.

The campaign against Newsom could hurt him politically in the long run, but it's not likely to bring down N, which would reduce the cash grant this liberal city provides from $395 to $59 a month, and replace the rest with vouchers for housing, drug and alcohol treatment and other services. By doing so, N will reallocate $13.9 million of the staggering $104 million the city spends on direct assistance to the homeless. Prop. N targets the roughly 2,700 single homeless adults who rely on what's called county adult assistance. (Homeless families are served by other welfare programs, and the single adults who receive county assistance but use it to pay for housing -- two-thirds of the overall caseload -- are exempt from Prop. N.)

Clearly the measure's real target are three unpopular homeless subgroups, which are not mutually exclusive: Those drawn by San Francisco's generous grant who take up residence here ("immigration" cases); scam artists who may live in other cities and come in to collect San Francisco bucks (almost all of the counties that ring this city have replaced their cash grants with voucher systems much like the one Prop. N would create); and the quality-of-life degraders: the increasingly numerous, often belligerent drunks and druggies who blight the streets and sometimes menace passersby, giving sections of once-beautiful downtown San Francisco a surreally Third World feel. The poster boys and girls for the Prop. N campaign are the homeless who refuse housing and services and spend their welfare checks on drugs and alcohol; who eat, sleep and perform bodily functions; panhandle, party and fight; get drunk, get high, get sick and sometimes die in plain view of the rest of us.


One of the biggest problems in assessing Prop. N is that nobody knows just how many people there are in each category. How many fraud cases are there? How many people who would otherwise have stayed in Omaha or San Diego are lured here by grant money? And, perhaps trickiest of all: How many hopeless cases are there? What percentage of the homeless population are the drunken or stoned or crazy ones, passed out on sidewalks or defiling public space? Will Prop. N hurt thousands of needy people just to punish a visible, despised few?

Sister Bernie Galvin, the leader of Religious Witness for the Homeless, says that "until this city can substantiate the claim" that many if not most of those targeted by Prop. N are committing fraud or spending their check on drugs or liquor, "I will refute it." Galvin insists the measure can't begin to provide the housing, drug treatment and job training that are needed to truly address the homeless crisis. "They're just trying to chase people away."


Prop. N supporters don't really deny that point. By weeding out fraud, discouraging homeless from moving here and not catering to those who want cash, not services, the measure will indeed reduce the welfare caseload, they say -- and they argue that this will let the city do more for the homeless who genuinely need and want help. But the moral cornerstone of Newsom's argument is that the current system hurts all of the homeless, even those who abuse it. Everywhere he goes, he talks about the 1,000 people who've died on the streets in the five and a half years since he took office, more than half of whom were victims of drug or alcohol abuse, according to the coroner. "True compassion isn't handing people an insufficient sum of money to live -- and letting 1,000 people die. It's getting them into a system of housing and services that can truly help them."

For a while, the perception that N was unbeatable neutralized much of the opposition. One of the city's most left-wing supervisors, Tom Ammiano, was widely quoted telling supporters to "bite the reality sandwich" and accept that Newsom's plan was too popular to oppose. The left's leading candidate for mayor, Ammiano stayed neutral on Prop. N for months.

Then opponents decided to recast the debate, and make the issue not the homeless but Newsom, who is widely hailed as the perennially beleaguered business community's great white hope for mayor in next year's election. (Although San Franciscans love to hate the business community, it has pretty much gotten its way for decades, with two glaring exceptions -- homeless issues and rent control -- and it has managed to survive despite a business-bashing board of supervisors.) So Ammiano, trailing Newsom in most polls, pulled together his own homeless ballot initiative, Prop. O, which would provide an extra $24 million for housing and drug treatment, as well as invalidate some provisions of Prop. N, should it pass. Later he jumped off the fence and joined the No on N side.


The powerful Service Employees International Union, which represents city workers and sees Newsom as an anti-labor tool of business, also joined the fray. "I think the business community is using a populist issue to support Gavin Newsom for mayor," SEIU spokesman Sal Rosselli told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. The No on N folks are trying to depict the measure as the revenge of the haves vs. the have-nots, and they've picked up a little momentum lately. Now the No side boasts slick fliers and placards just like the Yes side, only fewer of them, and TV ads to combat the measure started airing last week. They probably won't be enough to defeat it, but they might tarnish Newsom with voters, tagging him as a pretty-boy pawn of the business community, and that could be worth the price of a futile campaign.

Lately business has begun to fight back. Two weeks ago a new corporate-sponsored group, SF SOS, threw a "Save Our City" rally -- which raised certain questions like: Save it from whom? And for whom? -- that was billed as a way to muster support for Prop. N. "I was not happy about it," fumed Prop. N campaign chair Jim Ross, who would prefer to emphasize the measure's grass-roots support, its 1,000 volunteers and its sky-high poll numbers in this liberal city -- not the $200,000 it got from the business community's political arm, the Committee on Jobs, or its solid corporate backing. Plus, Prop. N didn't need the help. The SOS rally looked like an attempt by the business community, whose political fortunes hit Skid Row when the Board of Supervisors was taken over by the rabble in the last election, to glom onto N's popularity. "Jim feels that way; I don't," Newsom tells me, smiling. "If the business community wants to support Prop. N, God bless them. We're all part of a 'web of mutuality,'" he says, borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, he really talks that way, but you get used to it after a while.

Some days it seems that the vote on Prop. N could come down to which side's backers are more reviled by voters: arrogant, entitled business people and their allies, or belligerent, entitled homeless people and theirs. But that's too cynical. The battle over Prop. N has been heartfelt and substantive, a debate about the way liberals should define compassion, about the best way to help the homeless, about what we owe the worst off among us.


"Is Care not Cash paternalistic? Yeah," admits the city's human services director, Trent Rhorer, who supports the measure. "But our present system represents the victory of one kind of liberalism, where there's no accountability. The advocates play into liberal guilt, and it's troubling. Sometimes government needs to step in and improve people's lives."

Prop. N opponent Steve Fields, whose respected Progress Foundation provides residential treatment programs for the mentally ill and substance abusers, agrees that San Francisco liberalism sometimes goes too far. "I honestly think Gavin is sincere about thinking this is the way to help people, but the measure doesn't have the courage to fund the services people need."

Newsom insists the measure will serve far more people than opponents assume, thanks to the $13.9 million it will capture in redirected money. And he argues liberals shouldn't ask for more money until they're sure they're spending what they've got effectively. "I used to be part of the problem. I was one of those people who said more money, more services -- more is always better. Well, more isn't always better. Better is better."

"Oh sure," says Paul Boden, the irascible director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "It takes a millionaire to decide money is bad for poor people." Boden calls Prop. N. "a vicious shell game"; he dismisses Newsom and his supporters as "assholes."


That's the debate in a few sound bites, but the reality on San Francisco's streets is even more complicated.

Newsom is right about at least one thing: San Francisco has seen its homeless problem worsen even as it spends more money on services. Homelessness became a phenomenon in San Francisco, as in other cities, in the early 1980s, after a range of misguided state and federal policies -- cutbacks in federal housing subsidies and other services, the push to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill without funding community-based programs, plus the loss of manufacturing jobs in big cities -- threw a new and visible population onto the streets.

There were an estimated 5,000 homeless people by the time Mayor Dianne Feinstein ended her term in 1987, 6,000 under Mayor Art Agnos in the fateful earthquake year, 1989. Homelessness helped cost Agnos reelection, after he let them camp in a park across the street from City Hall, which his opponent, former Police Chief Frank Jordan, dubbed Camp Agnos. But the problem didn't get any better under Jordan, another one-term mayor done in at least partly by the air of futility that surrounded his efforts to clean up the streets. The centerpiece of Jordan's homeless policy was a clean-up-the-streets program called Matrix, which continued the city's history of generous cash grants to the homeless but beefed up law enforcement focusing on nuisance violations like public urination, loitering and camping in the parks. The Matrix program temporarily made the homeless less visible in certain high-profile areas like the Civic Center, but it did not appear to have any significant impact on the homeless problem one way or the other.

Willie Brown succeeded Jordan, and while he tilted more liberal than the ex-police chief did on the homeless during his campaign, he ended up punting on the issue. Brown made headlines by canceling a scheduled "homelessness summit" his first year in office, because he didn't want to risk political capital on a problem that he admitted "may not be solvable."


In the meantime, during the mid to late 1990s, counties around San Francisco were cutting their cash grants and replacing them with vouchers for housing and services, but this city resisted the trend. Coincidentally or not -- the two sides disagree on that -- the number of homeless San Franciscans continued to grow. Pegged at 6,000 in 1995, the city's official homeless estimate is now 12,000, though people use numbers ranging from 8,000 to 14,000. But there's one set of numbers no one can quarrel with: San Francisco's cash grant to indigent adults amounts to $3.58 per city resident, compared to $1.34 in Los Angeles; $0.70 in Alameda County, across the bay, and a mere $0.15 in adjacent San Mateo. This, California's 12th largest county, has the second largest county assistance caseload, and almost everyone agrees the comparative generosity of its cash grant is the reason why.

The cash grant is a mere fraction of the total amount city taxpayers pay for the homeless. A recent survey by San Francisco's controller found the city spends $104 million in direct services to the homeless. Another $100 million or so goes to public works to clean up the streets, to the criminal justice system, and to healthcare. Newsom likes to flash a gruesome statistic: The single largest healthcare cost at San Francisco General Hospital, which serves most of the indigent, comes from treating soft-tissue infections that come from intravenous drug use -- to the tune of roughly $14 million a year.

There's also a huge cost to the criminal justice system: In the last 10 years, the city has given the homeless more than 135,000 criminal citations, mostly for nuisance "crimes" -- sleeping in doorways or other public spaces, aggressive panhandling, public urination -- according to Sister Bernie Galvin, whose group tracks them. On any given night, the controller's report estimated, an average of 959 homeless people are in the city jail, at an annual cost of $30.8 million. And while there are no completely reliable studies, most people on both sides of Prop. N agree that substance abuse is a huge problem for the homeless -- between 40 and 50 percent, some say more, are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

When you really look at it, San Francisco's approach to homelessness seems like a dystopian combination of the worst of both worlds: Permissive liberalism -- the cash grant, with no mandate to accept housing or services -- with flashes of an arbitrary, punitive, law-and-order conservatism. Both sides agree there's got to be a better way: They just disagree about what it is.


Newsom's alternative is clear. He admits Care not Cash got its inspiration from Rudy Giuliani's system in New York, which also combines liberal and conservative approaches to homelessness, but creates a less dysfunctional hybrid. Though the left disdained Giuliani's model for its focus on cleaning up city streets for tourists and business people, and hiding the homeless in outer-borough shelters, in fact New York's plan is expansive, and expensive. Thanks to New York's court-imposed guarantee of shelter for everyone who wants it, the city served roughly 30,000 homeless last year and spent almost half a billion dollars doing it, providing not just housing (mostly in shelters) but job training, drug treatment and mental health services -- roughly five times as much as San Francisco spends, though New York only has three times as many homeless.

Newsom and his supporters traveled to New York early this year to look at how the system works, and the supervisor says he partly modeled his program on what Giuliani did. Except for one thing: There's no new money for services in his plan. That's what makes Prop. N seem like a little bit of a shell game, as Boden calls it. Disarmingly, its supporters kind of admit to that. In fact, Trent Rhorer walks me through the way they plan to move the pieces around.

"We know the caseload is going to go down," he says. "For one thing, we know there's fraud -- folks coming from other counties to get the cash grant." When I bring up Sister Bernie Galvin's complaint that the city can't prove that, he throws up his hands. "We've never studied it because we've never wanted to put our limited funds into tracking fraud," he says, asking me to imagine the outcry from advocates if his welfare department spent scarce resources that way. I've got to give him that one.

"So there's gonna be a winnowing of people from other counties," Rhorer says. Then there are the people who only want cash -- they don't want shelter or services, and the expectation is that they'll drop off too. Rhorer points out that Prop. N captures the roughly $13.9 million (based on the controller's estimate) that will be saved by cuts in the current caseload, even if the caseload drops because the city weeds out fraud as well as those who just want cash, not services. "Basically, this is a new revenue stream for supportive housing, which everyone agrees is the answer -- but none of the advocates admit that."

How will the targets of Prop. N be housed? With difficulty -- but Rhorer says it can be done. The city has roughly 2,500 homeless-shelter beds, but very few vacancies -- only 150 or so -- on any given night (the number varies with the weather). Affordable housing is an oxymoron in San Francisco, which boasts among the highest housing prices in the nation. The city does have an innovative master lease program, through which the Human Services Department has taken over management of a range of low-income and single-room-occupancy buildings, paying rent directly for the tenant. San Francisco currently houses more than 800 formerly homeless people in the master lease program, and Rhorer says he'll use about $8 million of the $13 million Prop. N captures on 1,000 new units through that program.

But neither side can say with any certainty how many people will remain on the caseload needing housing after the measure passes. Based on what happened in Alameda and San Diego counties when they imposed similar systems, Rhorer says the caseload will drop between 33 and 50 percent, by eliminating fraud and cutting off those who don't want services instead of cash. Estimating conservatively, if the caseload drops by a third, that would leave about 1,800 who need housing, 1,000 of whom could be served in the expanded master lease program. But that leaves at least 800 people without housing and not quite $6 million left over for the housing and services the Care not Cash campaign says the measure will provide. Maybe a couple hundred more can be served by the existing shelter system, but that could leave a lot of people with nowhere to go.

Sister Bernie Galvin predicts most of the "housing" provided by Prop. N "will be a mat on the floor of a shelter." Rhorer points to a key provision of N that says the city won't cut a recipient's grant if it can't provide housing. "Yes, some people will be served in shelters," he says wearily. "We don't know how many. We will phase the program in gradually -- and again, nobody will have their grant cut unless we can house them."

It's clear that voting for N requires some kind of leap of faith -- that the city of St. Francis won't warehouse its poor on mats in Dickensian shelters. You either trust folks like Rhorer to phase it in humanely, or you don't.

Calvin Davis doesn't trust Trent Rhorer, or anybody who works for his Human Services Department. An activist with the militant People Empowered for Welfare Employment Rights, or POWER, Davis was standing in a light rain on the day we met, picketing the office that administers the County Adult Assistance program, which the 52-year-old Davis has relied on for the last eight years.

All battles over poverty programs come down to our ideas about the deserving poor -- who is, and who isn't -- and men like Davis are a kind of Rorschach test of worthiness: Reasonable people will disagree about whether and how to help him. In many ways, Davis fits the profile of the typical homeless county assistance recipient: Most are African-American men who stay intermittently in shelters, who've been on the program for an average of more than three years. "Some of these guys, they started out in our foster care system," says Trent Rhorer. "It's a shame." George Smith, who heads the mayor's office of homelessness, says that's why the system has to be shaken up by Prop. N. "When you see the number of black men in this system, and try to say this system works ... " Smith trails off angrily.

The rail-thin Davis, missing a few teeth, is proof that the system doesn't work. He's wearing a leather-look jacket under a stained blue and white striped button-down shirt, both shirt and jacket buttoned up to his neck, and still shivering in the penetrating late-October cold. He says he sleeps most nights down at the South Beach shelter. Davis stands a little too close when he talks, edging me up against a wall of the building, not out of malice but out of a desire to be understood.

He's lived all over the country, he tells me, and he came to San Francisco from Berkeley, after the city unfairly shut down his "auto-detailing business." When pressed, he says he used to wash cars in public parking lots, until Berkeley cracked down on the practice. So he moved here and went on county assistance, though he's been thrown off several times for resisting the workfare requirement -- able-bodied recipients must work eight hours a week to receive their grants, some at tasks like street cleaning and washing MUNI buses. But about half do their work for local nonprofits, including the militant Coalition on Homelessness, which sort of adds up to the city subsidizing its own critics, but that's San Francisco. Another cadre of Prop. N opponents, the folks at Poor Magazine, have had contracts from Rhorer's department to train welfare recipients in journalism skills.

POWER made its name by first opposing the eight-hour a week workfare requirement for people like Davis, and then advocating that they receive union-scale wages if they did the work. Fewer than 10 percent of county assistance recipients are currently forced to work. Davis insists social workers have never given him any help or services to find a real job -- "They've never done nothin'" -- but he won't give me his county caseworker's name so I can ask about how he's been treated. There's no evidence he's spending his check on drugs or alcohol, he's not committing fraud, and yet you know he's the sort of guy Prop. N is targeting, too. Empowered by POWER, he insists he's entitled to his grant, with no strings attached.

POWER organizer Julie Brown, an intense, sweet-faced white woman with cropped black hair, seems to know Davis isn't necessarily the best public face of Prop. N's victims. So she brings over Emma Harris. A heavyset, spunky 50-year-old, Harris organized her workfare co-workers when she was cleaning MUNI buses so they'd be allowed to use the same bathroom as the regular MUNI workers. "Can you imagine? They had us using porta-potties!" But it turns out Emma's not on county assistance, or workfare, anymore; last year she got approved for the federal SSI program for the disabled. What's her disability? "It's my back. It's a back injury. It won't let me work. And ... well ... I'm a little slow. You have to tell me things a few times before I understand."

Harris wouldn't be affected by N even if she was still on the county's program, though, because she applied to the master lease program and now lives in a city-run hotel. (Prop. N won't take money from clients who use their grants that way.) When Calvin Davis hears Harris tell me that, he butts in: "I would never go in that program. Those places are nasty, and they're run by foreigners. Arabs, I think. They're all rude! Don't speak English."

Harris admits there are a few problems where she lives. "But I'm the tenant rep, so I'm trying to make things better." Soon Julie Brown is back: It's time for the rally to begin its march to Newsom's office. Today they're demanding "reparations" for the "slavery" of the workfare program. Davis and Harris wave goodbye and walk away, chanting, "Pretty boy Newsom, shame shame shame, Stop using the poor for political gain!" In the war between the deserving poor and the undeserving, most San Franciscans would probably be happy to help Harris, and to tell Davis to hit the road, and that's pretty much what Prop. N will do. The POWER march doesn't seem designed to convince anybody who's on the fence about Prop. N, but merely to show its power.

But the Yes on N campaign is saddled with problematic poster children of its own. One set of them came courtesy of the San Francisco Hotel Council, the political arm of the tourist industry, which has been hurt by the encampments on downtown streets. In the middle of the year, the Council began a slick billboard campaign, starring white yuppies and hipsters in pastel shirts and designer eyewear complaining about the homeless, and it made the crusade to clean up the streets appear to be the revenge of the haves.

On the billboards, which for a while were everywhere, aggrieved citizens hold handwritten cardboard signs made to look like those used by panhandlers: "I want to know why homelessness is still a problem, after we spend $200 million a year," one reads. "I want the Board of Supervisors to stop playing politics and actually do something about the streets." A third billboard features a middle-aged woman holding a sign reading, "I want the Supervisors to realize I have rights, too!" but at the corner of Jackson and Hyde Streets on Nob Hill, it's been defaced to read, "that far exceed those of other human beings." Although the billboards don't mention Prop. N, they went up around the same time its backers were gathering signatures for the measure, and helped it look like the backlash of the white and entitled, perhaps costing it as many votes as it gained.

Then came SF SOS. Only in San Francisco would a bipartisan grass-roots group openly backed by the business sector be demonized as the second coming of the Trilateral Commission. A rowdy 50 people picketed its kickoff campaign rally, their numbers swollen by the appearance of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fresh off a vote to support intervention in Iraq.

Clearly, after being routed in 2000 by the election of a lefty slate to the Board of Supervisors, the business community is fighting back with SOS, as well as with big-money campaigns behind several ballot initiatives, including Prop. N. They're also backing Prop. R, which would loosen condo-conversion restrictions, creating homeownership opportunities but also displacing tenants. And they're putting muscle behind the No campaigns on two progressive initiatives: Prop. D, which would create a local public power authority, and Prop. L, which would increase the real estate transfer tax. With few hot races for supervisor seats this year, the ballot measures are attracting most of the debate, and there's a clear "Which side are you on?" feel at the SOS rally.

Yet SOS has hired a Democratic fundraiser, Wade Randlett, and is insisting it's open to all points of view. "We are not just the 'straight white male' group," says spokeswoman Julie Chase, who proves the point since she's female, though she is in fact white -- as are the vast majority of folks who turn out for the kickoff rally. There are some Latinos and African-Americans in the crowd, for sure, some nicely dressed prosperous looking folks who mix and mingle. (Eventually I realize that most of the black men I see, and there are a fair number of them, are doing security, when they're mobilized to deal with the presence of a handful of demonstrators who've sneaked in to heckle Feinstein.) But the white folks there aren't all swells and socialites -- there are plenty of young families, dads wearing babies in backpacks, senior citizens scarfing down bagels in the back.

The group's best effort at diversity that day involved bringing in 100 or so folks from Chinatown on cable car buses. San Francisco's ever-growing Chinese population is fairly conservative, especially on social-spending and crime issues, so they have become a coveted voting bloc for moderate and conservative politicians and causes. At the SOS rally, the Chinatown contingent surged in, en masse, about a half-hour before Feinstein spoke, in the blue jeans and windbreakers and sweatshirts and sneakers of the immigrant working to middle class. They headed for the food tables and began eating the bagels and pastries that were left. Almost none of them spoke English. They were fairly indifferent to the speakers, except for one man who spoke in Cantonese for about 15 minutes, who got loud cheers from the whole crowd, not just the Chinese. A black security guy sidled up to me and whispered, "I don't cheer for anything I don't understand," and I had to laugh. It was a tableaux of San Francisco balkanization -- this city clearly lacks a civic center right now, but SOS can't be faulted for failing to create one in a day.

There was nothing sinister about the SOS rally. The speakers wanted clean streets, good schools, nice parks, a healthy business climate. But nobody had a shining vision of community, either. Nobody talked about the poverty or suffering among us; the homeless were referenced only as faceless folks who've turned downtown into a place where good people "are hassled every day," in the words of Randlett. Nobody referenced Dr. King's "web of mutuality." When Feinstein urged the group to support Care not Cash, to loud applause, one of the protesters who'd made it inside began to chant, "There is no cash! There is no care!" Gavin Newsom was standing right behind him, and stepped back a little so the security guys and police could muscle the guy outside, where he was allowed to leave without being arrested.

I asked Newsom why he wasn't on the dais with Feinstein and he grinned. "I didn't want to make it too political." It was a good call. For now this group needs him more than he needs it. The SOS rally got almost no media coverage, and that was probably a win for Care not Cash.

Some people will be thinking about SF SOS when they go to the polls Tuesday; some will be thinking about the rabble-rousers from POWER; some will be thinking about the prospect of Newsom as the next mayor. I'll be thinking about the downtown campus of San Francisco City College, a block from where I work. It's a charmless building on the corner of 4th and Mission that's set back from the street, with a small, covered mini-plaza on two sides. It's not enough room for students to hang out and congregate, there are no tables and chairs where they can read or socialize, not even park benches to wait for the bus. But it's just enough room for the homeless to sleep on cardboard and in raggedy sleeping bags and stay out of the rain.

So that's what they've done every winter over the four years I've worked downtown. Early in the morning, urine streams from the walls of the building over the sidewalk to the street. There are still some sleeping homeless folks to be stepped over when early birds arrive for the first classes of the day. Some sit under the overhang all day long to stay dry, or try to -- panhandling, drinking, socializing, fighting. It's not all Hobbesian; I once watched a man tenderly shave his friend, while they listened to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" on a boom box. One old black man is there almost every day and always says hello to me, protecting me from catcalls; I give him $20 every Christmas but try not to give out cash the rest of the time, because I think this space should belong to City College students, not the homeless. The city cares enough to try to wash the sidewalks most mornings, but not enough to try to clear the area for the students, most of whom are working-class Latinos, blacks and Asians. On this corner, it's the have-nots against the have-a-littles, and in San Francisco, the have-a-littles always get the shaft. Will Care not Cash change any of that? That's what I'll have to figure out before I vote. The rainy season is starting again.

But for a lot of people, Prop N. is going to be a referendum on Gavin Newsom: whether they trust him -- trust that the measure will provide care for the homeless, not merely chase them out of San Francisco. And whether they want him to be the next mayor, or want to use a vote on N as a brake on his political fortunes.

Rhorer trusts him. "Gavin's a progressive. You've got the advocates calling him a racist, but it's crazy. He knows and cares more about these issues than most supervisors, by far. He does his homework. He's taken tremendous hits on the left, and it's unfair."

Steve Fields partly agrees. "Ten months or so ago, I would have told you I could vote for Gavin Newsom for mayor," he says. "He was receptive and informed on substance abuse issues. He was an unequivocal supporter. That's what bothers me: How can he not see the serious flaws in this approach?"

I push Fields: After his 20-plus years in the human services business, can he deny San Francisco's generous cash grant is a magnet to area homeless, and complicates the problem of serving those who need help? "You can't deny it. There's no logical way to argue that it isn't a magnet to show up here." But Fields thinks Newsom is peddling a measure that promises "care," which is crucial to San Francisco's liberal voters, when it won't provide enough to make a difference.

"Look, if he had said to the moderate human service community: Here's a package of approaches, including a reasonable commitment to services -- not everything we want, but some -- and it included cash grant cuts? I think he would have gotten supporters. I might even be one of them. Sure, they'd have lost Paul Boden and the coalition folks, but they'd have won over the moderate left. But he didn't even try. It was important to tell taxpayers: Here's a solution that won't cost any more money, which is dishonest. It was fashioned to help win over the business sector."

Trent Rhorer denies that, on Newsom's behalf. "I respect Steve, but I don't think Gavin did this to court the business community. I think he believes it's easier to target services to people when they're housed, and he thought it could be revenue-neutral, that we didn't need more money for services. And I think so too. Maybe there aren't all the resources we need for treatment right now, but if we begin the process of directing money from bad programs to good ones, and we weed out folks who don't want help -- well, I think it can work."

For his part, Newsom laughs at the idea that Care not Cash is part of his grand strategy to become the next mayor.

"The irony is that absolutely no one I've talked to said to me, 'Cutting cash to poor people is the way to run for mayor,'" Newsom says. "Can anybody believe that? The day I proposed Prop. N, the Chronicle's headline was 'Newsom wants to cut cash to homeless.' Outrageous! Who is this guy?"

We're sitting in his City Hall office, which is decorated with photos of various Kennedys and books about them too. Bobby is his role model. There are also tomes about government reform and urban politics, including Robert Caro's nightmare-of-urban-reform classic "The Power Broker." Newsom gets going again. "You know that everybody who has associated himself with the homeless issue in this city has failed. Is that really a winning strategy to become mayor? Come on."

Fields actually agrees with Newsom on that last point. "Oh, I think he's hurt himself. Definitely. You can't carve out what's perceived as an anti-human services, anti-poor people campaign and become mayor in this town, I don't think. That's the sad thing. I don't think he really needed to do this to win over the business community -- they'd have supported him anyway. Where else are they gonna go? But he's written off a lot of people who would have backed him on the left."

Newsom says he hasn't decided to run for mayor -- that he's going to leave the decision to his wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the photogenic district attorney who made her own name prosecuting Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel in the dog-mauling trial last year, and who is said to have reservations about being the mayor's wife. "There's a huge cost. And I really don't want to be a career politician. But on the other hand, I think we need someone who's socially progressive, but practical. And wouldn't you love to see someone new, someone young, who hasn't made 3,000 deals?"

Wouldn't you? Newsom has a winning way of pulling in a listener, presuming agreement, entwining everyone in his web of mutuality. When we start talking about my daughter's public school, he confides that whatever happens to Prop. N or his mayoral future, he's taking on the school district next. He starts ticking off the problems, and naming all the forces in the way of reforming public education, and soon his aide, Mike Farrah, comes over and playfully tries to confiscate my notebook before news of his boss's latest crusade gets out to make them both more enemies. But Newsom makes it all seem like great fun.

I find myself wondering about Newsom's insistence that running against the homeless is no way to become mayor. Maybe it hasn't been in the past, but it might be today, when even liberals have gone beyond compassion fatigue to compassion catatonia, a condition in which the sufferer isn't able to care what happens to the homeless, he or she just wants them to go away. That said, he's taken a huge risk by sponsoring Prop. N. He could well be a West Coast Kennedy, politically martyred on the third rail of San Francisco politics.

But the viciousness of the campaign against Newsom has made me like him more, and I'm probably not the only one having that reaction. It seems a peculiarly San Francisco thing, and not one of the good San Francisco things, that Newsom's years of caring about human service issues can be wiped away because he thinks it's time to do what virtually every other California county has already done, and stop giving away big cash grants to the homeless. The way the other side has demonized him, and demonized the business community, too, seems part of why so many city institutions are broken. Even though I think Prop. N has flaws -- and I'm still not sure how I'm going to vote on Tuesday -- I think it's great that a millionaire Marina restaurateur cares about poverty. I wish there were more like him.

Not that I'm too worried about Newsom. Stink bombs and all, he seems to be having the time of his life. "I'm proud of this campaign," he tells me. "Even if I fail, I make it easier for the next person to take this on. There's great nobility in failure."

But he doesn't look like somebody who expects to fail.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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