Last week, Mayor Jerry Sanders used his veto power to cut one item from the city's 2007-08 budget: $465,000 earmarked by the City Council to fund the downtown winter homeless shelter, which usually opens the first week of November and provides roughly 200 people with meals, a place to sleep and access to social services each night until mid April.
Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, said the veto was necessary because the $465,000 was being drawn from the city's reserves, a pot of money set aside for emergency use. (Councilmember Donna Frye countered that the money hadn't yet been allocated to the reserve fund; she also put the amount into perspective: $465,000 is .0358 percent of the city's $1.3 billion general operating fund.) If we go with Sainz's version of the story, $465,000 is slightly less than eight-tenths of a percent of the city's $60 million reserve fund. It barely makes a dent.
The City Council intended for the $465,000 to be a placeholder, a way to guarantee funding for the shelter while the city worked with other agencies and, ideally, the county-the region's social-services provider who's not put a penny into the shelter for a number of years-to come up with a shared, sustainable funding source. But with the mayor's veto, the city's shrugged off that responsibility.
In the past, the San Diego Housing Commission, the city's housing agency, covered most of the shelter's cost with federal grant money. But starting last year, that money comes with new restrictions on how it can be spent and emergency shelters are verboten. Likewise, the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown-redevelopment overseer, can't spend the tax revenue it receives on emergency shelters. If either agency were to come up with money to fund the shelter, it would require a creative solution, like a land sale-an option that's being considered-to free up some money.
Finding a way to pay for the shelter isn't a new problem. A year ago, the Housing Commission informed the city that it could no longer pay for the shelter and, if forced to, would have to dip into its reserves-considered dangerously low. The city's own Independent Budget Analyst argued that this was a bad idea-not only because it ate up 12 percent of the Housing Commission's reserves, but also because it provided only a temporary fix to the problem. There were talks about the Housing Commission selling a parcel of land to CCDC, but that didn't work out. Suddenly it was October and there was no money for the shelter. The Housing Commission ended up digging into its reserve fund, but told the mayor and City Council it would be the last time. That was seven months ago.
The mayor has said not to worry-it'll all be worked out by a Sept. 11 City Council meeting. He's looking into solutions, he says. One option is private donations-though, it's a slippery slope when private money goes to pay for what's traditionally been a government-funded operation. Another option is having the Housing Commission sell a piece of land to CCDC. Again, it's a temporary solution that relies on a one-time source of revenue.
In all likelihood, the shelter will get funded-that's not the issue here. The issue is that the mayor vetoed this one, single item-nothing else, and in doing so, recused the city from pitching in to help fund the shelter. This comes after Sanders made a big to-do (we still have the press release) about the city participating in a national plan to end chronic homelessness. Granted, a lot of folks who believe in the pull-yerself-up-by-yer-boot-straps way of life don't see a homeless shelter as a priority. But that's not a constituency an elected official should seek to appeal to. At the least, it's about economics. It costs roughly $12 per day to shelter a homeless person. Meanwhile, putting that person in jail costs taxpayers $66.05 per day, and if a homeless person were to be taken to an emergency room, the cost would be $1,456.21.
Should all funding options fall through, we encourage the mayor to take a look at the Office of Ethics and Integrity, the costly city department he created, with seven employees tasked with making sure everyone at City Hall behaves ethically (homeless services, on the other hand, is handled by one person.) OEI's list of accomplishments for the 2006-07 fiscal year includes finding a vendor who'll be paid to develop software to educate employees about ethics, and teaching 150 federal border-patrol officers about black history month.
Ethical behavior comes from good, top-down leadership-not a seminar or a computer program. Perhaps, at the least, the office should work on educating the community about the causes of, and solutions to, homelessness.
Councilwoman Toni Atkins, who spearheaded 2002's Affordable Housing Day, initially voted to fund the shelter, but then supported the mayor's veto, arguing it was fiscally responsible. Atkins promised us that finding a site for a central homeless-services facility would be a goal for the remainder of her term in office. The Alpha Project, a homeless-services provider, has said it will find a way to fund the operation if the city will provide the land. We'll forgive Sanders for cutting the shelter money if he steps up to that challenge.
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