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Stateside With Rosalea - A House is not a home

Stateside With Rosalea - A House is not a home

Featuring on the Chron's front page last Friday was a photo of San Francisco politician Nancy Pelosi resplendent in red, celebrating her historic win as "1st woman chosen House minority leader". Well, to paraphrase an old saw, you can paint a donkey lipstick-red but can you make it kick ass? On behalf of the poor, the unemployed, the vulnerable in society, for example.

Here in the States, Wednesday 20 November is the National Day of Housing Action, part of a week of activities presented by Right to a Roof!, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, and the National Coalition for the Homeless. This fact was brought ot my attention by 'Street Sheet', its November issue celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

'Street Sheet' is sold for $1 a copy by homeless and low-income vendors who receive 50 papers a day and sell them on the streets as an alternative to panhandling. That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. For all I know, some entrepreneurial type buys up the entire 50 for 10 bucks to save the legitimate vendor the trouble, and then peddles them him or herself. Capitalism in action. Or is that when some powerful bully strongarms the legitimate vendor out of them? Whatever. Since many people who give the vendors money don't take the paper itself, there's the possibility of making more than $50 a day.

It's not a job I'd want, and homelessness is not a lifestyle I'd choose, nor is it one that I'm thrilled about seeing every day here in the East Bay and in San Francisco. Not the type to just dig into my pocket for extra change - though many people here in the US are - I simultaneously get angry at being pestered and anxious that I am only one pay packet and one budget cut away from being in that person's shoes (or lack of them).

Angry, anxious people are a politician's dream, from the war on terrorism (on which, incidentally, Pelosi says she stands "shoulder to shoulder" with George Bush) to Newsom's war on the homeless. Gavin Newsom was reelected as a San Francisco supervisor with 78 percent of the vote on November 5, and his Proposition N was approved by 60 percent of those who voted on it.

Although the official results are not yet in (absentee votes are still to be counted), the latest figures from the SF Department of Elections show that 15,000 of the 224,600 people who cast ballots didn't vote either way on Proposition N. It was characterised as the "Care not Cash" proposition, and from July 1 next year will cut city welfare payments to the approximately 2,900 homeless who now receive aid, so long as the housing and food services promised in lieu of the cuts are available.

Lampooned by some as the "Cake not Cash" proposition, it was seen by many as an attention-getting ploy by Newsom - whose business partners include folks with the surname "Getty" - to win voters' approval in anticipation of a mayoral attempt in 2003. According to 'Street Sheet' the list of organisations that bankrolled the million-dollar campaign to get people to vote yes on N reads "more like a directory of downtown hotel, restaurant and real estate interests, rather than of people and organizations with any track record of caring about the lives of the poor."

A recent count of homeless on the streets of San Francisco came up with a figure of 8,000; the 2000 census counted 280,621 nationwide on the night of March 21-22, but cautioned that those figures were likely to be inaccurate. Perhaps the figure most approaching the national reality is the February 1999 count by the Department of Housing and Urban Development - 470,000. According to the 'New York Times Almanac', HUD also suggested that figure represented only a quarter of all the people who were homeless at any time during the year.

Homelessness is the by-product of many things. Among them are factors about which people have widely conflicting opinions - unemployment, poverty, disability, substance (ab)use - but one thing that is measurable is the amount of housing stock and affordable shelter that is available. This Wednesday's rally in San Francisco will focus on a federal housing agenda characterised by the absence of construction of new low-income housing; the removal of existing low-income housing stock; "laws of exclusion", such as income requirements that keep homeless people homeless; and a federal budget that appropriates 400 billion for war and less than 30 million for housing.

According to the website at, last year's National Day of Housing Action "built critical momentum for the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Campaign, a nationwide effort to produce new housing in volumes not seen since the New Deal. Affordable housing construction also means new jobs in these hard times, but many federal politicians have not yet committed to this needed legislation."

The kind of angry, anxious reaction to the constant presence of street people, which I described earlier, is not just selfish but ultimately foolish. Nor is it sufficient to think "there but for the grace of God go I", and hand over some money. A problem of this magnitude requires action and it requires money. There are many community groups all over the States that are willing to help get people off the streets, out of the shelters - where they face a lottery for beds anyway - and into a home. But they can't do it on donations.

Perhaps if politicians like Nancy Pelosi spent a week on the streets, they might develop sufficient intestinal fortitude to redirect federal money to putting this nation's populace into homes instead of bombing other nations' people out of them.

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