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What's $100 Million When You're Homeless?; We Feel Safer Already

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001

What's $100 Million When You're Homeless?

On Sunday, Nov. 4, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a series of articles on homelessness with the claim that "S.F. spends more than $200 million a year on homelessness, but the problem persists." That $200 million is an impressive figure; unfortunately, it may be overstated by $100 million or so.

The Chronicle's figure, according to the article and reporter Patrick Hoge, was based largely on numbers from Mayor Brown's office, which estimated the city's annual expenditure on homelessness at $175 million. To that figure, Hoge added $41 million for health care for the homeless at San Francisco General Hospital. He also threw in estimates of homeless-related costs for street cleaning and jail psychiatric services for a grand total of $226 million.

Hoge's extremely large number perplexes the officials who calculate how much the city spends on homelessness. For one thing, Hoge calculated that Health Department expenses on the homeless were $96 million ($55 million from the mayor's estimate, plus $41 million for services at S.F. General). Yet Maria Martinez, deputy director of the Department of Public Health, says her department spends $39 million a year on homeless programs -- for housing and treatment -- and $30 million a year on health care for the homeless at S.F. General, for a total of $69 million.

The mayor's figures that the Chronicle used also included $95 million in affordable housing costs. Yet the city's own bookkeeper chose not to include affordable housing costs in his report on the cost of services to the homeless, because those programs serve only a very small portion of homeless people. Chief Assistant Controller Matthew Hymel reported to the Board of Supervisors in October that the cost of direct services to the homeless in this year's budget is $81.8 million, a far cry from the mayor's figure of $175 million.

Adding those direct-service costs ($81.8 million) to the cost of homeless services at General Hospital ($30 million) brings the city's annual expenditure on the homeless to about $112 million. Chronicle reporter Hoge said he was aware of Hymel's report, but chose instead to use the mayor's estimate, and to perform his own calculations. By doing so, he arrived at a figure double the amount that city government actually spends on homelessness.
-- Peter Byrne

We Feel Safer Already

Between anthrax scares and threats to blow up Bay Area bridges, people these days are understandably on edge. So it's comforting to know that in these times of peril there is one group of trained professionals we can count on to respond to any civic emergency -- bike messengers.

At least that's the idea behind the Courier Disaster Response Team, an effort to train the city's bike messengers to leap into action after a terrorist attack, earthquake, or any other sign of mayhem. The concept was dreamed up by Serenity Enriquez, a former courier who is now studying to be a paramedic. Since midsummer, she says, more than 100 messengers have signed up to receive training in first aid, CPR, pet first aid, light search-and-rescue, and even ham radio operation. The team had its first meeting last week, with about 30 people in attendance.

What exactly do messengers have to offer during an emergency? "We've got the stamina, and we're used to riding around all day," Enriquez says. "We know the city better than the back of our hands." Plus, they'll still be mobile if roads are impassable to cars or phone lines are down, and they're used to hauling around big, awkward things on their bikes, which could come in handy for ferrying medical supplies and the like.

Her program is a little ad hoc at the moment, with virtually no budget ("I'd fund it if I could, but I'm pretty broke," Enriquez says), but she has already talked with the Mayor's Office of Emergency Services about using the group as a potential resource.

As an added plus, while we're waiting for a major emergency, the courier disaster technicians, as they are called, can also respond to day-to-day problems -- heart attacks, downed bicyclists, or, conceivably, even the traffic accidents the bike messengers themselves cause as they careen through the city on their appointed rounds.
-- Matthew Smith

About The Authors

Peter Byrne


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