The streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin were littered with used needles and human waste on a recent July afternoon when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom returned to the downtrodden neighborhood.
Homeless people lay sprawled on sidewalks in broad daylight, many sleeping or passed out drunk. Empty booze containers surrounded one man’s few possessions near the corner of Turk and Leavenworth streets. A passer-by wondered aloud if he was dead.
It was here, as a new city supervisor in the early 2000s, that Newsom first confronted a problem that would follow him in elected office for the next 16 years: Worsening homelessness. San Francisco’s homeless population remained prevalent under Newsom’s watch as a two-term mayor from 2004 to 2010, despite his controversial efforts to eradicate its visibility and help place the most needy into housing.
As he now campaigns to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, Newsom has watched the problem explode across California.
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“Never been worse. Never in my life,” Newsom said as he walked the streets of the Tenderloin, passing liquor stores and Vietnamese restaurants. New, hip bars have also popped up in recent years as the area undergoes economic revival.
Yet it remains one of California’s epicenters for homelessness, with rampant heroin and crack use, visible mental health problems and blatant prostitution.
At campaign events in recent months, Newsom has told voters that addressing the state’s upsurge in homelessness is his top priority. California is now home to about 135,000 homeless people, a quarter of the nation’s total.
He says there has been a “lack of leadership” on addressing homelessness at the state level and is prepared to “get deeply involved at a granular level where most governors haven’t in the past.”
“I want to be held accountable on this issue, and I want to be disruptive of the status quo,” he said. “I’m willing to take risks. I’m not here to be loved. What’s going on is unacceptable, and it is inhumane.”
Newsom’s shortcomings in San Francisco, however, raise questions about whether he can truly address the problem.
As part of a broad strategy he undertook as mayor, Newsom pledged to end chronic homelessness by developing housing and family reunification programs for those living outside the longest. Many of the most hardcore street people were addicts or suffering from crippling physical and mental health problems.
Newsom failed to end chronic homelessness. A decade after he unveiled his plan, it fell by only 50 percent. And despite his larger efforts to help San Francisco’s overall homeless population, homelessness grew slightly under his watch. The official count identified 6,455 people the year Newsom took office as lieutenant governor, up slightly from 6,248 a year in his first term as mayor of San Francisco, according to the city’s official homeless counts.
What he did in San Francisco offers a glimpse of what may be ahead for California.
From 2004 until 2011, 14,234 homeless people were housed in San Francisco or given bus tickets home, according to city data, yet homeless people continued to flow in. It’s apparent from the reception he gets on the streets.
Just as he jumped out of his government-funded black SUV near the city’s mid-Market neighborhood — also a mecca for homelessness that is the gateway to the Tenderloin — a man shouted, “Hey, Gavin Newsom! What’s going on with the housing issue down here?”
“We’re doing our best. My mayor days are over though,” Newsom responded, as the stagnant stench of urine hung in the air and weed smoke wafted from nearby doorways. “That’s good, that means a whole lot,” the man said.
“Hey, Gavin! Hey, Gavin,” another man yelled across the street. “Thank you, thank you for what you did. I got housing because of you.”
His critics on the left say Newsom ushered in a heavy-handed set of policies that vilified homeless people and sharply redirected the city’s decades-long approach of providing cash aid, shelter beds and counseling to those on the streets.
In 2002, a year before he launched his fist mayoral campaign, he led a wildly controversial proposal called “Care Not Cash,” which stripped homeless people of city-funded cash welfare payments of about $400 a month in exchange for housing and treatment.
“It was the definition of patronizing,” said Chris Daly, a former San Francisco supervisor from 2001 to 2011 who served with Newsom for the entirety of his mayoral tenure. “It was, ‘I’m the great white hope and I’m going to fix this and I know better than you how to fix your problems because you’re poor.’”
In its first month of implementation, more than 3,300 people were housed, according to data on the program provided to The Sacramento Bee. Newsom sees it as a “compassionate” policy that helped the city shelter a large street population, while it built and acquired housing for homeless people. Cash welfare payments were exacerbating mental illness and substance abuse problems, Newsom said. People would get their bimonthly checks, he said, and buy booze, drugs and maybe get a hotel room for a few nights.
“It’s a depressing fact, but it makes perfect sense,” Newsom said. “When you live under this freeway pass, I do not moralize you buying two bottles of Night Train tonight…The money was actually incentivizing some of the behavior and not solving the problem.”
After Care Not Cash, Newsom unveiled his “10-year-plan” to end chronic homelessness. His goal was to develop 3,000 homeless housing units and invest heavily in supportive services to help the most vulnerable address their underlying health problems and addictive disorders. The city fell short on the target — it had 2,699 units set aside for chronically homeless people at the 10-year mark, though it surpassed the goal the following year.
Newsom also spearheaded a city ordinance outlawing “aggressive panhandling,” and years later, led a contentious fight at the ballot box to make it a crime to sit or lie on sidewalks and other public spaces like parks.
“The streets are not for people to shoot up,” Newsom said. He backs the controversial practice of clearing homeless tent encampments from city streets, parks and underpasses.
Meanwhile, he created programs that offered homeless people direct assistance. He more actively sought to get people off the streets by enrolling them in public welfare assistance that made them candidates for new housing units opening up primarily in single-room occupancy hotels clustered in the Tenderloin.
Under his leadership, the city started Project Homeless Connect, a bazaar-style event that originated in the centrally located Civic Center area, but since has spread to satellite operations across the city. Primarily run by volunteers, it offers a one-stop shop where homeless people can get driver’s licenses, sign up for health care and receive free eye glasses, dental care, haircuts, foot washes, massages, food, legal assistance and more.
But Care Not Cash was the most controversial measure. Critics said it made homeless people worse off, put more strain on the city’s shelter system and fell short on the promise of supportive housing.
“In essence, you’re paying for poor people’s housing with the very poorest people’s income,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy nonprofit in the Tenderloin. “He could have had another funding source. We have a massive budget in San Francisco, the money he took to pay for this was basically chump change for these guys.”
Friedenbach said Newsom’s other tactics on homelessness were also misguided.
“From our perspective, he very much took this very divisive leather-glove approach where he would, instead of trying to develop consensus and come up with solutions that brought everyone together, he would get headlines and notoriety by having something very controversial in his plans — that’s his basic strategy that he uses,” she said.
Some critics who were initially skeptical have come around.
Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who opposed Newsom when he first ran for mayor, said the program turned out to be a huge success.
“Once it started, it became very clear that all of the money was being used for housing,” Shaw said. “I never saw Care Not Cash as this evil reactionary plot against the poor that others did. It’s a much better deal for someone to actually get housing, which is what it did.”