Let the Facts Guide Us in the Care Not Cash Debate

By: Phil Ting

Please sign the petition to protect Care Not Cash

In the fog of political rhetoric and personal opinion – facts are a welcome beacon.

That’s why as the rhetoric on repealing Care Not Cash starts to thicken, we should look to the real facts to guide us to a fair outcome. And a review of the facts shows a program that is working successfully to house and support formerly homeless San Franciscans.

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Prior to the adoption of Care Not Cash by nearly 60% of voters in 2002, San Francisco was the only urban county in California that still provided direct cash payments to homeless aid recipients. Because we provided cash, our county became a magnet for many who preferred a cash payment rather than guaranteed food and shelter. And partially as a result of this cash incentive, our homeless population soared.

When Care Not Cash was first proposed, I was part of the 40% who opposed the measure. While I shared concerns about the sometimes damaging consequences of giving cash to a population vulnerable to drug and alcohol overdose, I was worried that the cash would be taken away by the politicians and the care would not follow as promised.

Nearly nine years later, we now have data to measure outcomes. And the numbers speak for themselves:
  • Since the implementation of Care Not Cash, 3,540 formerly homeless San Franciscans have been placed in permanent housing.
  • Nearly $13.7 million in funds that would have gone to direct cash payments was redirected to help finance 1,296 units of permanent housing.
  • The population receiving County Adult Assistance has dropped by 85%.
  • A count of the County Adult Assistance population showed 2,659 were homeless in 2004 just before Care Not Cash was implemented. That number is just 360 today, a decline of 86%.
  • Despite assertions to the contrary, the shelters are not routinely turning away homeless San Franciscans. On average, about 100 shelter beds are left vacant every night.

These numbers reflect the conclusions of the city’s highly respected Controller, who took a thorough look at the program in 2008. The findings: Care Not Cash is working. The Controller found problems that needed to be fixed, as you would expect with any program. But overall the conclusion of the Controller’s report was that the program is a dramatic success.

Care Not Cash Is Working

Despite these demonstrated successes, a few weeks ago five San Francisco Supervisors placed a last-minute measure on the November ballot that would essentially dismantle Care Not Cash. Their proposal is to require the city to return to cash grants of up to $422 per month unless permanent and affordable housing was available to all who asked for it.

Since even temporary shelter beds would not be considered permanent housing, and since we all know there is not enough money or land to build permanent affordable housing for every single person who needs it, the effect of passing the measure would be to return to the system before Care Not Cash.

What does the data show about taking the program away? The Controller took a look at those numbers two weeks ago. His findings include:

  • An immediate loss of $1.4 million per year in funds that now go to build permanent affordable housing to help the homeless escape the streets
  • A potential increase in funds are needed to pay direct cash grants of $8 to $10 million per year, if (as many conclude) we see a return to the caseload levels before Care Not Cash 
  • That these new expenditures would mean other programs would need to be cut in order to fund the increase in cash payments, since the measure to dismantle Care Not Cash contains no funding source

As the Controller himself pointed out in his 2008 audit, the Care Not Cash program is not perfect. No program is. But the data shows clearly that we do not need to start from scratch. We can fix what needs to be fixed in Care Not Cash without a return to the days when the city gave cash payments that were, even then, not enough for food and shelter for a month and were used all too often to fuel drug and alcohol addictions.

There is so much that needs to be Reset in San Francisco. It is a shame that we must spend this time and energy arguing over a program that simply needs to be refined.

But I hope, as we debate, that we look to the facts. And I hope that after you review the facts, you join me in support of preserving the principles of Care Not Cash.

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Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137