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Amid recession, is San Francisco losing its heart?

The famously liberal city slices aid for the needy. Advocates cry foul, but others see a need to curb spending.

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Famously liberal in its politics and its spending, San Francisco is steering a new spendthrift path amid the federal Keynesian revival – cutting antipoverty and social-service programs that helped build the city's reputation as a haven for the poor.

As homeless tent cities rise up in nearby Sacramento and across the country, deep spending cuts here have ignited a debate over the city's reputation and priorities, and raise a larger question: How will cities care for the widening ranks of poor and homeless in a recession that may get worse before it gets better?

To close a projected $438 million shortfall, Mayor Gavin Newsom – who is campaigning for the 2010 governor's race – has proposed a "target" of 25 percent cuts to all city departments, including large reductions to health and human service programs that, combined with deep midyear spending cuts, mean the closure of some popular antipoverty programs this July 1.

While such belt-tightening is hardly unique to San Francisco, the cuts have many asking if this iconic "Left Coast" city has moved to the right of the federal government, which is spending nearly $1 trillion to revive the economy. San Francisco's reputation for benevolence was affirmed by a recent city controller's report, which found that the city far outstrips its California counterparts in per capita spending on public health and social services.

The cuts run counter to "what this city ought to be – a caring city, caring for the people who live in this city and caring for people who serve this city," said Damita Davis-Howard, president of the Service Employees International Union's municipal workers local, at a recent City Hall protest of about 700 city workers. "People are losing their houses, people are losing their savings, their retirement, and it's the services in San Francisco that help those people in crisis."


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