September 18, 2022 | San Francisco Chronicle

Prop. 27 would rake in millions for homelessness. So why don’t homeless advocates support it?

Proposition 27, which offers to both legalize online sports gambling in California and deliver millions of dollars for homeless services, is on life support.

Not only did a nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week show that only 34% of likely voters would support it while 54% would oppose it, the ballot measure is losing the support of key early enthusiasts.

And it never gained widespread support among many in an audience you’d think would be thrilled to have hundreds of millions of dollars raining on them: California’s homeless service providers and low-income housing builders.

“They’ve been doing outreach, but not getting a lot of takers,” said Paul Boden, who has been working on homeless issues for 40 years in San Francisco.

“If these corporations wanted to be helping homeless people and mentally ill people, they could use their foundations, which they all frickin’ have,” said Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which opposes Prop. 27.

Prop. 27 offers voters a sweetener if they support legalizing online gaming in California: 85% of the money it generates through a 10% tax on gross online sports betting revenue would go toward homeless services.

Or, as one of its ubiquitous ads promise: “Proposition 27 is the only ONLY permanent funding solution for California’s homelessness and mental health crises.” That sweetener could generate “possibly in the hundreds of millions of dollars but likely not more than $500 million annually” in state revenue, according the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But the spoonful of initiative sugar has been met with a shrug — at best — from what should be its core supporters.

Fran Butler-Cohen, CEO of Family Health Centers of San Diego, hasn’t taken a position on the proposition but told me she is “getting tired of ballot initiatives that put in this kind of soft thing to make it more palatable to the voters. This is a gambling initiative.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in homeless services that actually thinks that we would realize a windfall from this, that we can instantly start building housing units and getting people off the street and getting them into mental health service,” said Butler-Cohen, whose organization serves 27,000 homeless people annually. “I don’t think anybody thinks that.”

Butler-Cohen thinks about the combined $370 million that the pro- and anti-Prop. 27 sides have spent on the campaign and wonders how many people could have been helped.

“When you look at the amount of money that has been raised for this ballot measure, what could we do with a half a billion dollars right now?” Butler-Cohen said.

Prop. 27 does have supporters in the community, as well as political leaders including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. But the enthusiasm of other organizations has waned.

Last fall, Tomiquia Moss, founder and chief executive of All Home, a San Francisco homeless policy and grant-making organization, was enthusiastic about the prospects of a new funding source. She told me at the time that “this is an opportunity to use resources that can support folks who literally are dying on our streets.”

But on Friday, Moss told me that the organization’s board ultimately voted to take a neutral stance.

Tommy Newman, a vice president with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which is a top grant maker to homeless organizations, was also enthusiastic about Prop. 27 because of its promise of long-term funding. At least he was last fall as the campaign started.

While there has been more than $15 billion in the state budget for homeless funding over the past two years, providers worry that there’s no guarantee of how long that level of funding will be maintained.

Short-term funding “makes it really hard to craft real strategies,” Newman told me last fall. “It makes it really hard to figure out how you’re going to help pay somebody’s rent if the money is only guaranteed for one year.”

But on Friday, Newman told me that “we ended up neutral” after formally considering the measure.

The prospect of an ongoing gambling-linked funding stream wasn’t enough for other providers to support Prop. 27. The Coalition for Homelessness San Francisco opposes it. So does the NonProfit Housing Alliance of Northern California, an umbrella organization for affordable housing producers.

“It has become a topic of conversation amongst the broader affordable housing community,” the organization’s policy director, Abram Diaz, told me. “It’s not every day you get perhaps a shot at a revenue source.”

But Diaz said some in the housing community “are wary of being attached to the issue either way. It’s a tricky one, very complicated. And while we work in the political space of housing, really, we just want to get to the bottom line of building units to address the problem — not get in the business of entering political thickets.”

That helps to explain why some organizations are neutral. The Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national organization that has a large presence in California, is neutral. So is People Assisting the Homeless, which has served more than 25,000 people across Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California.

Don’t discount the political power of California’s Native tribes in this equation. More than 50 of California’s federally recognized tribes oppose Prop. 27, while only a handful support it, and that carries a lot of weight. Plus, in an occurrence that happens about as often as it snows in San Francisco, both the California Republican Party and the California Democratic Party oppose Prop. 27.

“Given that so many of the tribes have opposed the measure, it was difficult for us to maintain a support position as we work in partnership with our Indigenous communities,” Moss, of All Home, told me.

But she added that “we believe in the intent of the (Prop. 27) funding, which is why our board was neutral and not ‘no.’”

The road ahead for Prop. 27 looks tough, but spokesperson Nathan Click said the campaign remains “undaunted” by last week’s poll numbers. Click said the Prop. 27 campaign took $40 million in attacks before “we even qualified for the ballot.”

“No one who lives in our state can deny that we need permanent solutions to our homelessness crisis,” Click said. “Only Prop. 27 will dedicate hundreds of millions of permanent funding that can be used for solutions like tiny homes, permanent supportive housing and mental health treatment to help get people off the street.”

Thirty-five states have approved sports gambling. Click said, “California should be next.”

The challenge in getting there may lie in something deeper in last week’s Public Policy Institute of California’s poll. It shares the ballot with Proposition 1, the measure that asks voters to approve a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

While 61% of voters said the outcome of Prop. 1 was very important to them, only 29% felt that way about Proposition 27.

“People didn’t find it very important,” said Geoff Zochodne, who covers the gaming industry for Covers, a website. Compared with other heady questions on the ballot, sports betting “is probably not as big a deal in the minds of voters.”

How will we know for certain whether Prop. 27 is off life support and floating into the ballot afterlife? When we no longer see the TV ads.

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