Proposition E - Public Assistance Benefits, Ordinance

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the March 2000 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

The city operates four public assistance programs for the indigent and dependent poor of San Francisco under which it may, and does in fact, provide benefits in cash, services, or a combination of both. These public assistance programs provide benefits of between $294 and $364 per month, which is paid in cash to approximately 9,300 indigent residents, of whom it is estimated 2,500 are homeless and regularly sleeping on the streets.

Proposition E is a proposed ordinance, primarily written by an individual, which would require that no more than 15% of the benefits provided under these public assistance programs could be in cash. The remaining benefits would be in the form of a housing voucher and services such as mental health therapy and job training. The ordinance also increases the period of disqualification for fraudulent use of various programs, and makes stricter the standards for proof of residency for applicants.

Proposition E addresses a real and serious problem ­ individuals purchasing alcohol and drugs with their general assistance checks. However, the right approach to the problem of people "drinking up their welfare checks" is to provide in-lieu vouchers for just those public assistance recipients who are, in fact, homeless. A measure passed in 1994 but never implemented by the city, Proposition N, would do this. This existing authorization, particularly if the city were to create a special shelter for current cash recipients of public assistance, would be a less expensive, more effective, and less disruptive way of solving the problem of misspent cash benefits than the adoption of Proposition E. SPUR has recommended to Mayor Brown and the Board of Supervisors that they implement Proposition N before the March election.


Those who support this measure state:

  • The city is "enabling" addiction to drug and alcohol by providing cash to addicts.
  • Public money is being wasted on addictions, rather than being spent on people's basic needs.
  • The city's current homeless policies are not working, so something new needs to be tried.
  • The payment of cash encourages non-San Franciscans to come to San Francisco to get the cash benefits.


Those who oppose this measure state:

  • This measure is well-intended but very poorly crafted. The housing registration, inspection, and approval process for public assistance recipients would create administrative hurdles and raise the specter of discrimination by landlords who-understandably-do not want to deal with another city bureaucracy. Loss of housing for currently housed public assistance recipients is a significant risk under this proposal.
  • The city controller has estimated that the additional cost to the city to administer the standards and requirements for providing housing and other services to the entire public assistance population will be a minimum of $6 million annually. There will also be significant one-time costs to implement Proposition E.
  • Programs for providing housing and other services to the indigent should be created by ordinances and regulations adopted by the legislative and executive branches of city government not the electorate, so that they can readily be changed to meet evolving circumstances.

SPUR's analysis

The impetus behind this proposed ordinance is well-meaning and its basic objective is sensible. There is abundant evidence that a substantial portion of the 2,500 homeless beneficiaries of these public assistance programs in San Francisco regularly spend their semi-monthly cash payments on alcohol and drugs. The obvious solution is to give vouchers for housing, food, and services, instead of cash. It is clear this situation must be changed.

In 1994, San Francisco voters passed Proposition N to do just this. Prop. N authorizes the city to require that public assistance beneficiaries who are homeless participate in a programs in which the city provides housing in lieu of making cash payments. However, the city has never implemented Prop. N. The latest measure, Proposition E, is a response to real and justifiable frustration that nothing has been done.

Unfortunately, Proposition E is not specifically targeted at the homeless, but would also include approximately 5,800 city residents who currently receive public assistance and have found shelter for themselves. Proposition E would require landlords to register with the city to receive vouchers from people on general assistance, a risky bureaucratic mandate that could jeopardize the housing of the majority of public assistance recipients.

Although this ordinance is directed towards a set of real problems, the measure will hurt more people (public assistance recipients with shelter) than it helps (the homeless). It is likely that the housing many general assistance recipients occupy will not meet city standards and thus not be eligible for payment by vouchers. It is even more likely that many landlords will choose not to go through the hassle of registering with the city to receive housing vouchers. This measure may actually increase the homeless population. SPUR opposes Proposition E. SPUR will continue to urge the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to implement the 1994 Prop N to address this serious problem without the unintended consequences of Proposition E.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Proposition E.