Saturday, January 01, 2005

Head Counts and body counts

Though buried deep in the F section, Rachel Gordon's City Hall Beat (SF Chronicle, Dec. 31, 2004) has an item that could result in front-page news later this year. The city is going to pay for an outside study to find out what happened to 1000 people who disappeared from the city's welfare rolls after Care Not Cash kicked in last May.

Part of the mythology underlying the peculiar torpor displayed by city progressives on the homeless issue is that the homeless are just poor people who can't afford housing. The reality for anyone with eyes unblinkered by ideology: the most visible homeless have serious substance abuse and/or mental health problems. 

But surely there were some scammers who disappeared once Care Not Cash became operative, and their hustle was no longer viable. We may finally get a sense of how many people were ripping off city taxpayers when this study is complete.

While on the subject of numbers and homelessness, progressives still skeptical of Care Not Cash and the mayor's Ten Year Plan should turn up the heat on the mayor to reinstate the city's annual count of the homeless who have died on our streets. I think the mayor and Angela Alioto are on the right track, but a yearly body count is one way---not the only way, to be sure---to evaluate both the long-range and short-term success or failure of the mayor's approach.

In fact, Mayor Newsom might even agree with that statement. While still a supervisor, Newsom got a lot of flack from progressives in 2003 when he asked the city's medical examiner to come up with a death toll for fiscal year 2002-2003. The examiner found that he could verify a total of 169 deaths for the city's homeless for that period. He added that his office only handles half of the city's 8000 annual deaths, so the real total could be much higher (SF Chronicle, Aug. 29, 2003).

The annual body count used to be compiled by the city's Dept. of Public Health but was discontinued after the 2000 count (total homeless dead that year: 138), supposedly for lack of funding. We have a right to suspect, however, that there were a lot of city officials---including some so-called progressives---who found the annual body count embarrassing. 

While the homeless body count was still being done, I tried in vain to get local papers to publish the numbers on the front page, citing the example of the weekly body count during the US attack on Vietnam as a boon for the peace movement. I still think highlighting the number is useful to remind people that we still have a lot of work to do as long as homeless people are dying on our streets. More here

The District 5 angle
: D5 candidates Julian Davis and Diamond Dave Whitaker formed the Candidates Collaborative last May just as the race was getting underway. I admit I was skeptical at first, though I attended every Collaborative meeting when my work schedule permitted. In retrospect it seems clear that the Collaborative was helpful in keeping the campaign civil, as all the candidates---except for Joe Blue---attended meetings at one time or another and got to know one another, more or less. But here's the item: Diamond Dave gets a mention in Bob Dylan's autobiography ("Chronicles," Simon and Schuster, 2004). Dylan credits Dave with turning him on to Woody Guthrie's autobiography:

A great curiosity respecting the man had also seized me and I had to find out who Woody Guthrie was. It didn't take me long. Dave Whitaker, one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene happened to have Woody's autobiography, "Bound for Glory," and he lent it to me. I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word...(page 245)

Diamond Dave's place as an historical footnote is secure.

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