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‘You wash us away, but we’re still here’: Homeless funding initiative headed for November ballot

August 13, 2018

by Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness

Advocates celebrate the submission of signatures for an initiative that would fund efforts to address homelessness with a tax on large businesses. (Ian Williams/S.F. Examiner)

A white jogger throwing a Black homeless man’s property into Lake Merritt.

A well-dressed man kicking a sleeping man’s face so severely he was hospitalized.

The owner of a local club circulating death threats to homeless people and chasing a camper with a gun.

These are just some of the publicized events. Of course, people forced to live outdoors face this and worse on a regular basis.

As homeless people’s health deteriorates, these same victims of decades of housing divestment are blamed by our city leaders. Hateful perspectives are validated by policymakers’ insistence on perpetuating the myth that those on the streets are choosing to be there, and only find salvation when they finally accept services.

This great fable has permeated our collective psyche and appears in almost every piece written about the issue in San Francisco. It serves as a salve to our guilt: our sorrows for our destitute, our feelings of impotence, our inability to turn the crisis around.

This great fable permits our policymakers to brag about a well-funded system that attracts denizens from afar, to elude accountability in the face of visibly severe poverty lived out in public view each day. The reality of true human suffering directly contradicts this tale of a carefree lifestyle rich with offers of a plethora of services from a generous city. If only, if only, they chose to accept them, but no.

A fairytale homelessness is not. For those forced to sleep on our streets, the reality is a nightmare.

In the words of Jesse, spoken with tears in his eyes outside his tent, “You want to wash the streets, and wash us away. But we are still here. We wish we wasn’t. This ain’t living.”

There are very few pathways out of homelessness. Over a thousand people compete for shelter beds while thousands more compete for housing, with only those with more than 20 years of documented homelessness in this city getting lucky.

In the words of Jesse, spoken with tears in his eyes outside his tent, “You want to wash the streets, and wash us away. But we are still here. We wish we wasn’t. This ain’t living.”

Over half of San Francisco’s homeless population becomes homeless before the age of 25 – but often have their lives and their health destroyed before an opportunity at stability presents itself. Enforcement is at full tilt. Over 10,000 citations are given annually, but more typically homeless people are chased from block to block, frantic to hold onto their last meager possessions.

Homeless people and their allies in community-based organizations, business community and neighborhood groups are working hard to turn this crisis around and recently took a giant step forward to do just that.

A bold measure is heading to the ballot, as a groundswell of over 500 volunteers turned in twice as many signatures as needed to quality for the November ballot. We have a powerful grassroots movement building.

“Our City, Our Home SF” would take a nominal amount of revenue from the earnings over $50 million of the largest San Francisco businesses – only the largest! – and transform the streets of San Francisco and the lives of those forced to live on them. It would provide rental assistance to keep thousands of San Franciscans from being displaced each year, when they get sick, when they lose their jobs, or when their fixed incomes don’t keep up with rising rents.

It would house 4,000 households: families with children, youth and the most impaired of those on the streets. It would eliminate the shelter waitlist. It would dramatically rebuild our mental health and substance abuse systems. It is carefully crafted to ensure every dime is accounted for with maximum results laid out in a best practices plan.

Those cynics among you who don’t believe anything can be done – rest assured and take in this large breath of hope.

“Our City, Our Home SF” would take a nominal amount of revenue from the earnings over $50 million of the largest San Francisco businesses – only the largest! – and transform the streets of San Francisco and the lives of those forced to live on them.

For those who say we are spending too much already, I say yes, we are spending too much, millions on emergency health care and policing, which could be saved if only we housed the same people costing so much!

For those who say, just put the police on them, make them change their behavior and leave, I say we do that already and they land on your doorstep, and complaints only go up. A push for more policing of homelessness is simply a push for the status quo – a failed response that only fattens the dog chasing his tail.

As vicious and cruel as that man’s kick to another’s face was, aren’t we kicking homeless people each day when we don’t take action?

As vicious and cruel as throwing that man’s property into the lake was, don’t we do that every day, San Francisco, in city sanctioned sweeps where property is dumped?

Aren’t we threatening lives as those without homes die prematurely living in abject poverty?

Good people, I implore you: Get behind common sense, stop complaining and start problem-solving. Get behind Our City, Our Home SF and turn this housing crisis on its head.

Groundswell of volunteers gather record number of signatures for November ballot

A broad cross section of San Franciscans celebrated with a rally their overwhelming success in a signature gathering campaign that brought in a record number of signatures, through the efforts of over 500 volunteers. The ballot measure, called Our City, Our Home, would double the parts of the city sponsored system that work and address homelessness for thousands of households.

So amazing!! Here we are turning in 28k sigs! Pictured here are two of our amazing proponents Kristen Evans and Jacquelynn Evans. Standing between them is Emmet House long time coh member and homeless activist. We will be transforming the streets and the lives of those forced to live on them with this measure but we are expecting a people powered fight! – Jennifer Friedenbach

After just two months of volunteer petitioning, the measure collected a record number, over 28,000 signatures (under 10,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify), displaying San Francisco voters’ commitment to a multifaceted approach to address the housing crisis and get people off the streets, plugged into permanent housing and much needed services. Speakers included Cleve Jones, AIDS activist, and Joe Wilson, director of Hospitality House and initiative proponents.

“This measure is capturing both the hearts of San Franciscans and a fraction of the Trump tax cuts to finally address homelessness and alleviate our local housing crisis at the same time,” according to Sam Lew, of Our City, Our Home.

According to Our City, Our Home proponent Jacquelynn Evans, who herself has been struggling with homelessness as a parent: “Today, we no longer have to wait on the sidelines to ask for permission from anyone to fix the homeless issue. We have developed our own plan for housing ourselves.”

“This measure is capturing both the hearts of San Franciscans and a fraction of the Trump tax cuts to finally address homelessness and alleviate our local housing crisis at the same time,” according to Sam Lew, of Our City, Our Home.

If passed in November, the initiative would funnel about $300 million annually towards permanent housing, shelter, mental health care and services for currently and formerly homeless San Francisco residents. The measure would also help several thousand San Franciscans stay in their homes through rental assistance and other supports.

Funding would be derived from an average of 0.5 percent gross receipts tax on businesses revenue in excess of $50 million annually. Cleve Jones stated: “When I was a baby homosexual back in Phoenix Arizona …, I knew Arizona was not a good place for someone like me … so as soon as I got out high school, I got the hell out of Arizona. I ended up homeless, on Polk Street, in the Tenderloin.”

“This initiative prevents homelessness by halting all preventable evictions. When a senior loses their spouse or someone loses a job, rental assistance ensures that they do not also lose their long-term rent-controlled housing,” states Brian Basinger of Q Foundation.

Our City, Our Home is backed by organizations including GLIDE, Community Housing Partnership, Q Foundation, Dolores Street Community Services, Larkin Street, Hospitality House, Coalition on Homelessness, Homeless Prenatal, SF AIDS Foundation and many more.

Homeless revenue measure proponents call foul on OEWD memo

A memo from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to Mayor Breed which was shared and publicized by the SF Chamber of Commerce is fatally flawed, failing to consider the recent Trump tax break which reduced federal corporate taxes from 35 percent to 21 percent and providing no evidence for claims of job loss.

OEWD conducted an analysis that was limited to estimating which sectors would be affected by the new taxes and in comparing the tax structures of different cities. However, there is no data to back up their claims of job loss.

Major shortcomings of analysis indicate ideological bias:

  • Failed to demonstrate that the 300 to 400 largest mega corporations in San Francisco that would be impacted by the measure would actually be paying less taxes than they were paying pre-Trump tax break four months ago.
  • Conflated multiple potential ballot measures, including a statewide ballot measure and one measure that has already been removed from the ballot (the Uber tax). The homeless revenue measure being criticized represented only 30 percent to 40 percent of the total taxes analyzed by the study.
  • Provided no data or evidence to back up speculation about potential job loss. Even so, it was stated that such job loss was unlikely to happen immediately but would potentially happen “over decades.”
  • Failed to analyze impact of our unrelenting homeless crisis on jobs such as those in the tourism industry. Tourism experts such as the Hotel Council have warned that “what our employees, visitors and customers confront daily on the streets of San Francisco risks our city’s future,” according to Kevin Carroll of the Hotel Council, quoted in the SF Chronicle on April 23.
  • Failed to account for new employment that will be generated by the measure. The $300 million a year generated by the measure will move funds directly back into the local economy. The measure will add additional jobs in the form of case workers, middle class HSH administrative staff and construction jobs.
  • Failed to analyze the true impact on a tax that is only an average of .5 percent and only on income above $50 million. A large business bringing in $54 million a year, would only pay the tax on the $4 million. Retail pays less then 2/10th of a percent, meaning that the additional tax on retail will be only $1,750 for every $1,000,000 in gross receipts over $50 million.

“It is unclear what the Chamber of Commerce feels is the right approach to this humanitarian crisis. They want homelessness solved, but that cannot be done without funding. Is it the right approach to tax small businesses or the middle class?” said Nicholas Kimura, an eviction defense worker. “The idea that this would cause job loss is the same tired old scare tactics a select number of big businesses have used repeatedly in the past.

“Trump cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent just four months ago. SF companies will still be paying less than they did pre-Trump tax breaks, and they were thriving under that higher tax structure. This measure would instead add benefit to the economy.”

San Francisco business leaders and economists made the following comments about homelessness, the tax impact and the San Francisco economy:

“Yes, our economy is good and our businesses remain resilient and determined, but the prolonged effect of what our employees, visitors and customers confront daily on the streets of San Francisco risks our city’s future and can no longer go unresolved. We need to fix this crisis now. City hall’s top priority must be a solution.” – Hotel Council of San Francisco Executive Director Kevin Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle, April 23, 2018

“Homelessness has always been a big issue, but never like this.” – Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Jim Lazarus, San Francisco Chronicle, May 2016

“Right now, San Francisco is probably in a position to levy that tax without losing a lot.” – Stanford Professor Joseph Bankman, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 2018

If passed in November, the initiative would funnel about $300 million annually towards permanent housing, shelter, mental health care and services for currently and formerly homeless San Francisco residents. The measure would also help several thousand San Franciscans stay in their homes by helping them when they are too ill to pay rent, or when rents surpass fixed incomes of elderly San Franciscans. Funding would be derived from an average of 0.5 percent gross receipts tax on businesses revenue in excess of $50 million annually. For retail, the rate is only .175. The largest category of businesses required to pay this tax are those in the financial services category.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, 468 Turk St., San Francisco CA 94102, 415-346-3740, can be reached at jfriedenbach@cohsf.org.

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