The War on the Poor

The War on the Poor

Jul 4, 2024

Phoenix Project

Tom Ammiano served on the San Francisco Board of Education from 1990 to 1994, the Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2008, and the California Assembly from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of the Phoenix Project’s Advisory Board.

More than a half century ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced The War on Poverty, a collection of social programs to help poor and working people. Last week, the United States Supreme Court, aided by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, her handpicked City Attorney David Chiu, and a bevy of billionaires launched a war on the poor, a shameful moment for a city that once prided itself on compassion.

The Supreme Court issued a ruling that the city of Grants Pass, Ore. can legally cite the unhoused even when there is no available shelter. It overturned a federal court ruling in Martin versus Boise, which stated that cities must provide shelter before it can move unhoused people from their streets. The judges behind the Boise ruling wanted cities to provide shelter for their unhoused residents rather than removing them from view of the more fortunate.

Mayor Breed called the ruling, in which all three of Donald Trump’s appointees to the court sided with the majority, a “victory.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board thought otherwise, saying it will lead to “a race to the bottom” when it comes to how municipalities deal with the unhoused. According to a recent survey, more than 8,000 San Francisco residents are unhoused. The city has 3,900 available shelter beds. Rather than create more shelter, Breed, Chiu and her supporters would rather sweep the problem from view, considering the plight of the unhoused as an aesthetic or quality of life for the affluent rather than a humanitarian issue for the unhoused.

Breed, Chiu and the billionaires did not sit idly by as the Supreme Court deliberated on the case. Chiu, backed by Breed, filed an “amicus brief,” cited 8 times by Justice Neal Gorsuch in the court’s majority opinion. Neither did the billionaires who, of late, have been spending hundreds of millions of millions of dollars to refashion San Francisco to their exacting specifications. A second amicus brief was filed by a group that included right-wing billionaires Michael Moritz, William Oberndorf, and John T. Kilroy Jr., and Chris Larsen.

In their brief, the billionaires stated that “homelessness is not a new challenge in San Francisco. Amid the City’s vast cultural and economic prosperity, some people have always lacked housing for a complex range of reasons.” 

As San Francisco journalist and longtime political observer Tim Redmond noted, the unhoused are “the victims of 40 years of public policy promoting corporate and individual greed.” Extreme income inequality has forced people onto city streets.  Moritz, Oberndorf, Kilroy, Larsen and their ilk have consistently rejected any attempt to tax their wealth, spending staggering sums to oppose any ballot initiative — or candidate for elected office — that suggests that billionaires should pay their fair share to support a city that has made them exceedingly rich.

Moritz, who started TogetherSF Action, a political action committee to further his right-wing agenda, has been particularly resistant to programs to ease homelessness. In 2016, Moritz, joined by fellow billionaire Oberndorf, spent nearly $50,000 on Proposition Q, a city measure to ban sitting or lying on sidewalks between 7am and 11pm. The measure narrowly passed and resulted in a lawsuit filed against the city by the Coalition for Homelessness and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2020, he spent $100,000 to defeat Proposition C, a San Francisco ballot measure that called for increasing gross tax receipts on companies making more than $50 million a year for homeless and mental health services.

Moritz, a former journalist, took pen to paper to write a screed against the measure, admitting that “opponents can easily be described as wealthy, tone-deaf, self-interested and heartless.” Voters agreed and Prop C passed, generating $300 million yearly for desperately needed services.

Breed, whose election to the city’s highest office was bankrolled by many of these same billionaires, has been all-too-happy to carry out their agenda of selfishness and cruelty. Her collusion with the billionaire class betrays not only the most vulnerable among us, who rely on government for their very survival, but all San Franciscans who hold the city’s historic values dear to their hearts.

In a scathing dissent, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said punishing unhoused people when no shelter is available is simply “a big game of whack-a-mole.”  “For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court has granted San Francisco, and other cities, the right to sweep homeless encampments. All three justices appointed by Democratic presidents voted on the losing side of the 6-3 decision. The question facing San Francisco is now that the law allows it will the City engage in actions such as sweeping homeless encampments that will accomplish little other than making some people feel like they are being tough on homelessness, or will they pursue more holistic and proven policies to reduce it. The answer to that question depends a great deal on how much control the conservative billionaires pouring so much money into San Francisco politics will have.

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