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The Grid 

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
Banishments and Blandishments
The Board of Supervisors meeting Dec. 9 -- the last substantive session of the year -- provided a window on a centrist trio in the making and hints of how legislative power may flow in the year to come.

Supervisor Barbara Kaufman had already assumed the presidency, which Kevin Shelley relinquished after his Nov. 5 election to the state Assembly. (It was hers by virtue of her first-place finish among all supervisor candidates and is official as of the Jan. 8 swearing-in.) Supervisors Susan Leal and Leslie Katz pledged that legislation would be introduced to give greater protection to tenants evicted by landlords who move into their own properties, which ensures that the board will revisit the acrimonious debate over so-called "owner move-ins." (A stridently pro-tenant bill, which was vigorously opposed by property owners, had just met an ignoble demise after being abandoned by its sponsor, Supervisor Michael Yaki.)

With Willie Brown calling the executive shots from the Mayor's Office, the legislative troika of Kaufman, Leal, and Katz will likely help shape the agenda ahead, serving as complement and check, depending on the issue at hand.

On that score, Kaufman is widely expected to appoint Leal to head up the supervisors' committee that has jurisdiction over the city budget. That would vest the power of the purse with the sole board member who's shown a willingness to stand up to Brown on matters of dollars and cents. Remember Leal's lone opposition to the mayor's initial labor contract proposal for Municipal Railway employees and her stance against the ill-fated Proposition E. That ballot measure, which would have changed the method for setting municipal employee benefits, would have cost the city an estimated $50 million to $100 million a year, according to official estimates. It lost 3-to-1 at the polls.

Not that Leal will play budgetary Scrooge. She's pledged to make a top priority of finding $20 million to fund substance-abuse treatment on demand, which has been a public-health failing for years.

Katz, elected Nov. 5 to a first term after being appointed to the board by Brown, is the only supervisor on the mayor's Welfare Reform Task Force. If grappling with the local implications of federal welfare reform proves to be the policy challenge many are predicting, Katz is likely to be at the center. Says Katz: "It is hard to know what will come down. Right now the goal is to flow with the change." Official estimates are that S.F.'s poor stand to lose up to $150 million in federal benefits.

Kaufman, a one-time radio consumer advocate, is expected to bring that same orientation to City Hall in 1997. Late last year, she appeared with Brown to announce a pilot project to set up user-friendly neighborhood service centers around the city. The notion is that residents and business owners should be able to transact all city business at one office -- from obtaining a building permit to buying a Muni Fast Pass.

If the three lawmakers indeed form a cohesive center, as we expect, it portends a thoughtful, moderate agenda. But it would marginalize more progressive supervisors, like Sue Bierman and Tom Ammiano, who have had trouble moving their reformist agendas. They will be further shifted to the edges of the debate if Kaufman follows through on her rumored plan to reduce the number of legislative committees. Having fewer committees would make it easier to deny a chairmanship to less sympathetic colleagues on the 11-member board like Ammiano or Bierman.

On Dec. 9, Ammiano said he could see the seat being pulled out from under him. He quipped: "Just watch. I'll be made chair of the Farallon Islands Oversight Committee."

At Home With the Homeless
It's 6 p.m. on a recent rainy Monday night, the beginning of the anything-can-happen shift at the South of Market Multi-Service Center, the city's largest homeless shelter, at Fifth and Bryant streets. "Everyone's in and everyone's awake," says Director Rayna Dimodica. She flashes one of those chaos-as-usual smiles seasoned social workers are apt to produce when explaining their world to the uninitiated.

Dimodica works for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which runs the shelter under contract with the city. She's sitting in her spare second-floor office explaining how extensively homelessness rules her life. "I'm on 24-hour call," she says without a hint of weariness. "I never get out of here."

If only anything approaching such commitment could be ascribed to Mayor Brown, who's viewed by advocates as having wasted an entire year in office when it comes to dealing with homelessness.

On Dec. 27, however, Brown took a baby step toward recognizing that ignoring homelessness is as politically risky as attacking it. (Former Mayor Art Agnos made the issue a centerpiece of his social agenda, and watched it turn into a lodestone that dragged him down during his 1991 re-election effort.) Dec. 27 was the day Mayor Brown tapped his social services director, Michael Wald, as his in-house poverty czar.

But don't expect Wald, a former Stanford professor and Clinton administration policy wonk, to suddenly produce material actions out of Brown's barely visible policy. An attorney by training, his expertise is in child welfare. Wald's first visit, therefore, should be with line soldiers like Dimodica. Not surprisingly, she says the situation on the street has worsened if anything since Brown took office.

Under Brown, as under his predecessor, Frank Jordan, the shelter's budget has remained frozen at $1.5 million. That's $13.47 a day per bed. Money's gotten so tight that Dimodica can't spare a hot meal for a third of the 305 clients she shelters every night. "I hate that," she says. Every year, 300 more people than the year before are turned away from the city shelters, reaching 5,000 annually, Dimodica says. (Estimates of S.F.'s homeless range from 6,000 to more than 10,000.)

One of the new developments Dimodica has seen already is the influx of seriously ill discharged hospital patients. "I have an emphysema patient, a chemotherapy patient, and a guy with a separated shoulder tonight," she says. She now sets aside 10 beds for visitors in need of medical care. "All the time I get people with stab wounds; the other day I had a guy in here who had just had open-heart surgery," she says. San Francisco General Hospital called recently asking if she could make room on weekends for Friday postop discharges.

Dimodica's No. 1 suggestion for the mayor? "Job training and job-readiness programs." Over the last two years, she's turned the SOMA shelter into a mini jobs-program. Of the 97 full- and part-time employees at the shelter, 68 percent are formerly homeless, nearly triple the city's 25 percent requirement. Dimodica has taught her clients the basics of writing resumes, how to arrange voice mail or pagers, and the importance of consistent attendance and punctuality at the workplace. "You need to teach people basic life skills. These are people who have lost touch with those skills."

Maybe there's a lesson here for the Brown administration.

About The Authors

George Cothran


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