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Homeless haven rethinks tolerance

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Mr. Brechin says he won't come into San Francisco, because he "can't take it anymore." Six-year resident Sonja Brandjes is sometimes afraid to walk the streets in certain parts of town. "It's worse than it has ever been," she says. "We just accept it because it has always been there, but I don't think it's safe."

Such complaints are not unusual. Yet, for the most part, these are not people calling for street sweeps and jail time. This is a city conflicted, and for many here, Supervisor Gavin Newsom has provided a way out.

In his office, he displays two conspicuous piles of letters for and against his plan to help solve the homeless problem. The "support" pile teeters at least 10 times taller, but what is amazing, Mr. Newsom says, "is how much they apologize. They say, 'I'm a progressive, and I can't believe I'm writing about this subject, but I support you.... Please don't use my name.' "

"People are questioning their beliefs," he adds. The response has indeed been surprising. Part of the plan is to expand a ban on panhandling to places such as median strips and transit stations. In the mid-1990s, Mayor Frank Jordan tried to take a hard stand on homelessness, too. Voters canned him in the next election.

Yet several things are notably different this time around. Foremost among them is a growing sense that the old way is just not working. As San Francisco's tourism-based economy sours in a post-Sept. 11 world of less travel, many are wondering if their tax money is being used in the most effective way. The county spends some $100 million a year on homelessness.

"It's analogous to where New York was in 1993 - reeling from recession," says Newsom. "People started focusing on the problems and got fed up with the soft ineffectual symbolism."

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