Commentary: Critics of the Homeless Tax Are Forgetting Important Details

Mayor Robb Davis listens to the concerns of the business community during a walkabout in May

As most of our readers are already aware, Davis Mayor Robb Davis believes that homelessness is a top issue facing this community and he has been attempting to fund service programs and affordable housing for homeless people possibly through a $50 a year parcel tax known as the Social Services Tax.

Last week, the Sacramento Bee ran a story on his efforts.

According to the Bee, between 2009 and 2017 there was a 28 percent increase in the number of homeless in Davis, from 114 to 146.  The Bee acknowledges, “The numbers are considered rough estimates because it’s notoriously difficult to get accurate counts of homeless populations.”

The mayor told the Bee, “It’s not a huge number compared to Sacramento and other places, but it is a much more visible homeless population than it was.  I believe we can get our arms around it, but it’s a long walk.

“If we really want to tackle the most intractable problems … we need a secure funding stream for a long period of time,” he said.

The question that many are asking is whether we should do something to get our arms around it.

On Thursday, the Vanguard re-published an open letter to Mayor Robb Davis on the homeless issue, in part to open some items to important discussion.  The letter writer got a number of facts wrong,
but I am going to focus on one central point that is raised – the notion that if you build support services they will come.

Writes Mr. Hanley: “The big problem for cities is that when they improve services, that becomes an attraction for others. This population is mostly fairly mobile, although they don’t move like you and me. They move the way refugees do. I know from being in touch that some make 20+ mile hikes at night pretty regularly.”

Here’s his key point: “I would use great caution, Robb, in creating more attractions for homeless people. They read newspapers. The Sac Bee headline about Davis will bring more. I strongly recommend that you hit this hard in Sacramento, not locally.”

Is Davis likely to become a magnet for homeless people if they provide services that are better than other communities?  That is a central point I hear over and over again.

Here is another example of the response to the issue of homelessness with a similar theme:

“There is no amount of money we could conceivably spend that will solve this problem — if we give housing to 100, we will have 100 more a week later. They are not going to attend group therapy and resolve their substance abuse and mental health problems. We don’t have the money to provide Betty Ford level residential addiction treatment and/or the level of mental health services needed to begin to impact the population.

“The best answer is to make Davis much less hospitable and less of a magnet to transients. Raising taxes will eventually drive out the tax paying residents, and we will be left with a permanent class of transient dependents along with a homeless industry who are paid for outreach and never ending services to individuals who are highly unlikely to ever become productive and/or law abiding.”

Is this a real concern or are people simply looking at ways to avoid paying more taxes – or is there something more fundamental going on?

That would seem to be a tough question, and at the Chamber discussion back in October on the homeless issue, Jon Adler, who has worked with the homeless population for about 20 years and is a former homeless person himself, addressed it.

He believes that we are a magnet for homeless people in Davis, but not in ways that seem likely to change any time soon.

He said that we are attracting people here.  “The same reason that you chose to live here – it is safe, it is a nice town.  When I went to bed, I didn’t worry about someone kicking my head in.”

As we have previously reported, the Social Services Tax would actually be quite a bit broader than just impacting homeless issues.  It would fund about half a million for homeless services, and another $500 to $750 thousand for affordable housing with a smaller amount for local public service programs – for a total of $1.4 million.

Davis is fairly unique in taking this approach, although other communities are starting to step up as well.

“It’s not common, but we’ve been seeing more cities and counties passing taxes of various kinds for more social services kinds of purposes,” Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities told the Bee. “Cities that want to take a step up from what the county is doing to address social service issues” are the ones going the tax route.

However, what Davis is doing is actually fairly modest compared to what Sacramento has done recently, in negotiating with Sacramento County for a $44 million contribution over three years to a city-led homeless services program.

Spearheaded by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, “The county will now partner with the city of Sacramento by first providing better coordinated care in emergency rooms – often the main point of contact for many living on the streets, especially those with mental and physical ailments. Services would include mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Mayor Steinberg’s “Whole Person Care grant will bring in $64 million over the next three years – $32 million in federal money matched by local funds from the city and hospitals. The money will pay for a comprehensive outreach program designed to keep homeless people out of the ER, stabilize their lives with existing county and city services and move them toward permanent housing.”

So if you are worried about the city’s half million program and that it will lead people to cross the causeway by the dozens or even hundreds, keep in mind that Sacramento has actually stepped up in a big way.

But that hasn’t stopped people from criticizing the city’s approach, and it will be interesting to see if the council can get enough support from the community to pass the tax if comes to the voters in June or November of 2018.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    But that hasn’t stopped people from criticizing the city’s approach and it will be interesting to see if the council can get enough support from the community to pass the tax if comes to the voters in June or November of 2018.

    Yes it will be interesting.  Maybe when voters are presented with so many new taxes they will opt to just pass the lower $50 parcel tax and say no to the larger park and road taxes?

    1. David Greenwald

      In part that’s why I suspect the main tax will be in June and the social services tax in November.  I don’t have a good sense for the public on this, I know there are some vocal critics of it, but most of them see to be right-leaning voters who are clearly not representative of the voting population in Davis.

        1. Howard P

          Sure they are… they’re looking at a warm fuzzy concept, other people pay for it… and it assuages their guilt… for only $50/year… a real “bargain”!

          We contribute ~4 X $50 a month for various charities/organizations that provide for social services, including those that serve the homeless, and spouse contributes 4-8 hours a week for STEAC, and other groups that provide direct services to the poor and the homeless.

          We do not support any group that consumes more than ~ 15%-20% for admin and other ‘overhead’ costs.  We use CharityNavigator to investigate any org we consider contributing to…

        2. Alan Miller

          We do not support any group that consumes more than ~ 15%-20% for admin and other ‘overhead’ costs.  We use CharityNavigator to investigate any org we consider contributing to…

          How does the GOVERNMENT of Davis stack up on CharityNavigator?

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t think they’ve determined that. My guess is that it will go into the affordable housing fund just as in lieu fees have and presumably state money from SB2 and SB3 will. Which seems like a good question to ask when City Hall re-opens.

        3. Howard P

          Not listed, Alan… but you knew that… my point was that new City revenues for new city programs, should disclose the amount of overhead… the City requires that info for entities seeking to get block grants, administered (yeah, more overhead) by the City…

        4. Keith O

          Yes, I want everyone in town to chip in $50 bucks to provide the city with some money for an affordable housing pot and a pot to help the homeless.

          That’s $50 per year and that’s just for starters.  You said you agreed with me the other day when I posted that once a Social Services program gets encated it will most likely come back to taxpayers for more taxes down the road.

    2. Todd Edelman

      It’ll look bad – and it is bad – if in the same election Davis voters choose parks over homeless services.

      Overall taxes are low and much of it is for the owners of multi-national arms companies and military pensions; driving is significantly under-taxed so that people who don’t drive subsidize people who do. Howard P(ublic) is correct that $50 is a tiny amount of money, but still in a way’s it’s a drag that people who volunteer many hours each week will have to pay it, just like people who spend $50 on  a bag of groceries at Nugget, and compost half of that.

      Most countries and communities which take help citizens take better care of themselves don’t raise revenue this way.

  2. Howard P

    Everyone is talking generalities… until such time as there are concrete proposals for how the money will be expended, and how much is diverted to staff to administer and run programs, and how much goes for actual effective programs, I remain a skeptic.

    If those issues are not concretely addressed before a vote takes place, I’ll vote against it.  Right now everyone is talking at the 3o,ooo foot level.

    Like the title of the topic says, people are forgetting important details.

  3. Tia Will

    The best answer is to make Davis much less hospitable and less of a magnet to transients”

    The best answer for whom ? Those who don’t want to pay more in taxes ? Those who have a “put them on a bus to the next community mentality” ? Those who have a comfortable, safe home to go to ? Certainly not for the homeless.

  4. Alan Miller

    if you are worried about the city’s half million program and that it will lead people to cross the causeway by the dozens or even hundreds, keep in mind that Sacramento has actually stepped up in a big way.

    Isn’t this a bit of a self-defeating argument?  You state that such programs are not magnets, and then state that Sacramento has such a big program that we don’t have to “worry” about “them” coming over “here”.

  5. Alan Miller

    I’m not buying the argument that programs aren’t magnets.  Back when I rode the rails, the hobos knew which cities had service programs and friendly cops, and which towns would run you out of town or throw you in the slammer over a perceived minor grievance, and would pass this information on in the camps and on trains.  As I stated yesterday, if hobos came out of the Triangle and into town, they would immediately be stopped by police.  The police knew the “townie” homeless and mentally ill and let them be if they weren’t a threat, and outsiders were watched and intimidated until they left, or at least went back to the “safe space” of the Triangle where police tended to leave them alone.  Everything changed rather quickly in the early 2000’s, with the advent of the “new homeless” from out-of-town, often connected with a pit-bull mix mutt, and leaving copious quantities of trash in their wake.  I don’t understand what caused this huge dynamic shift, but it is clear to homeless and housed alike.  My long-time Townie homeless friend told me the Townie homeless have no love for this new breed of homeless, and want them out of town as much as the business community and many residents do.

    1. Howard P

      Off-topic, but curious… “pit-bull mix” referent… Do you have a problem with that mixed breed, Alan?  Just curious… you’d not be alone… pitties and mixed are illegal to own around Denver…

      1. Alan Miller

        Just an observation.  I have tried to find out why this is, and recently someone explained that this is the most common and unwanted dog in shelters, so the shelters give them away with shots included and the homeless take them for protection/companionship/sympathy.  Can anyone confirm this or offer another explanation?

        1. Howard P

          If you read the accounts of Booth Tarkington (early 1900’s) [‘Penrod’, and other works], and James Thurber [ex. ‘Requiem for Rex], you will find that pitties are very friendly, loving dogs, but they also ‘defend their pack’ [their human friends (and canine ones) who are under attack by strangers]… some used that trait to maliciously train them to “dog-fight”… where the breed got its ‘bad rep’.

          Have never met a pit bull or a mix that was not friendly to me, and at first meeting, made it clear that there wanted me to be their new BFF… have owned two mixes… one was probably 1/2 pit, the current one 1/4 pit.

          See the TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees” (Animal Planet)

          Pitties/mixes are perfect for the homeless… loving, loyal, accepting of more ‘pack members’, but defensive if their ‘pack’ is really threatened…

          A-holes looking for dog-fights/betting/money mistreated the breed and gave them bad ‘reps’…

          In the early 1900’s, pits were considered good dogs for children… loving, and, when necessary, protective.

          For what it’s worth…

          But am straying off-topic…

  6. Howard P

    Nothing concrete here… just “talk-talk”…

    Might have been wrong… more like 40,000 foot views, not 30,000…

    Enjoy… will wait until the adults come… if there are any…

  7. David Greenwald

    “I’m not buying the argument that programs aren’t magnets”

    Several responses:

    1. Not necessarily arguing that they aren’t, only that Davis isn’t necessarily offering the biggest program in the area.

    2.  I’m skeptical that such a program would be a magnet given how hard it is to get homeless people to access services as it is

    3.  There must be empirical data on this, all I’ve heard/ scene is anecdotal evidence that seems limited at best

    4. If this is really a concern (most homeless experts do not have such a concern, it is mostly people that tend to be critical of such programs), you can design the program to service the local homeless population

  8. Eric Gelber

    Seems to me the argument that establishing services for people who are homeless will act as a magnet for additional homeless people is simply a rationalization for not addressing the issue.  The alternative of not developing services in hopes that the homeless will simply leave is not a solution. This would logically lead to a race to the bottom, where each community seeks to provide fewer services than other nearby communities so as not to be the “magnet.”

    Better to develop a reputation as a community willing to address a pervasive social issue through innovative social programs than one that chooses to turn its back on those most in need of services and supports in hopes that it becomes someone else’s problem. Yes, that may mean that some people will come here to access those services (just as some move to Davis to access better schools); but, the alternative of putting our collective heads in the sand is not an adequate response.

  9. Cindy Pickett

    3.  There must be empirical data on this, all I’ve heard/ scene is anecdotal evidence that seems limited at best

    There is a Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis that could be a good resource for the City of Davis. It seems odd that the University and city don’t partner on these issues. Anyway, here’s a summary of one of the Center’s policy briefings:

    *A permanent $100,000 annual increase in federal homeless assistance decreases the size of the average community’s unsheltered homeless population by 35 single adults and 11 people in families.[1]

    *More generous funding does not draw any new single adults into the local homeless population, but communities with disproportionately generous funding have larger family homeless populations.

    *Locally, more funding leads to greater family homelessness because families move to regions with more generous funding. In the presence of such migration, local governments may be incentivized to under-provide homeless services.

  10. Howard P

    According to today’s Emptyprize, the City has a homeless outreach coordinator… started ~ Sept 1… so will assume that the total comp of that employee will come out of the GF and a deduct from any new revenues generated by a tax measure…

    That ‘classification’ does not readily show up on the City website… would be interesting to know what the total comp for that position is…

      1. David Greenwald

        You have to put two and two together: “The range of services now include outreach, assessment, and case management,”. The position is called “outreach coordinator”

        1. Howard P

          So, you’re saying that the position is either not a city position, and or it is funded by all those entities?  Still doesn’t speak to total comp nor the City’s share…

          Did you ever perform in a school play of Oliver Twist, and take the part of the Artful Dodger?

          [moderator: please stop these types of personal comments.]

          1. David Greenwald

            All I said was that the position appears to be grant funded (at least for now). I don’t know what the total comp is, and since the city is closed this week, I can’t attempt to find out.

  11. Keith O

    It would be good to know how many new positions would have to be created in order to enact any new homeless program and how much staff oversight it would involve.  Remember too that all new employees create a long term drag on city finances.

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