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SF mayoral candidates vie for support from seniors, physically challenged

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Adults with a variety of physical challenges were among about 900 of the city’s nearly 220,000 seniors—a quarter of the city’s population—who packed the Herbst Theatre’s on April 26 for the first-ever mayoral forum that focused on their needs. The event was sponsored by the Dignity Fund Coalition.

The candidates on the panel included Attorney Angela Alioto and state Sen. Mark Leno, both former San Francisco supervisors, as well as current supervisors London Breed and Jane Kim. Other mayoral hopefuls in the auditorium were invited to introduce themselves before the forum got underway.

Moderator Yomi Wronge—manager of the Adults with Disabilities Act compliance program for Sutter Health’s Peninsula Coastal Region—posed questions from the organizers as well as ones the audience posted online or wrote on cards. But with a slate of candidates all on the progressive end of the scale, some in the audience found it tough to name a winner.

“It’s hard to get the candidates to differentiate,” said Mission District resident Diane Jones. And as another said, “We’re in good hands, whoever wins.”

Challenges to the Dignity Fund

One of the first questions addressed the Dignity Fund, which could face a challenge on the November ballot. Created in 2016 by Proposition I, it was marshalled by the Dignity Fund Coalition and approved by more than two-thirds of voters. The fund guarantees annual baseline fiscal support for services for seniors and adults with disabilities. Inaugurated at existing funding levels of $38 million, the fund is now in a set-aside budget protected from cuts and guaranteed future increases.

Increases in San Francisco’s cost of living have now put basic economic security at risk for 57 percent of seniors and adults with disabilities. And with this population projected to grow, they’re  concerned.

But the candidates all strongly dispelled any notion they would do anything to weaken the legislation. Alioto talked of her advocacy over the years representing clients in Adults with Disabilities Act cases. And she compared the Dignity Fund to the city’s landmark 1991 Children’s Fund, which she championed. Kim, a former Board of Education member, said that despite reservations about set-aside budgets, “I’ve seen over and over again that certain stakeholders will lose when there’s not a dedicated funding stream.”

San Francisco a livable city?

Asked questions about housing shortages and evictions, fear of homelessness, street and sidewalk safety, and the availability of long-term care, Alioto said that she would create coalitions of citizens to get involved in finding solutions to the city’s problems, including homelessness. She pointed out that under her tenure as supervisor, funds were created to provide services for the chronically homeless, including a needle exchange program. That money, she said, has since “moved to the new people coming into town with all the new businesses. Now, the streets are dirty and there’s no place to put the formerly homeless.”

“It’s unfortunate we can’t take for granted in San Francisco life’s basics: food, clothing, shelter,” Leno said. “I’m reminded that when someone loses their home due to the no-cause Ellis Act – 70-year-old men who have survived an epidemic [AIDS] for 35 years are losing their homes but also access to medical care, pharmacies and the community support networks that sustain them.”

In a livable city, all citizens have a roof over their heads and accessible bathrooms, Breed said. Though San Francisco has built new housing for seniors and the homeless, we are still failing on that front. Better outreach is needed to identify seniors in need and make sure they have adequate housing and help. Breed said she has pushed back on developers to provide more affordable housing and pushed for repairs to existing buildings. Raised by her grandmother in public housing, she recalled the lack of an elevator and the challenge of filling out forms to get services. “It was frustrating. So many seniors who live alone don’t qualify for services. We need to make sure they get them.”

For Kim, general affordability is the city’s overarching problem. “I’m proud to live in a sanctuary city, and one that has free City College, but the most progressive policies in the world don’t matter if people can’t afford to live here.” Kim pointed to her record in securing funding for improvements in subsidized housing, and a revolving loan fund to fix failing elevators in Tenderloin housing; challenging low-fault evictions and supporting the right of tenants to counsel during eviction; making City College tuition free for all San Francisco residents; and fighting for free Muni for low-income seniors and those with disabilities. “We need to pour more money into housing, education, transportation and healthcare” Kim said. In one effort to impact affordability, she is urging the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, on which she sits, for a regional pass for low-income households.

“I’ve never seen the city as bad off as it is today,” said Alioto. “Boarded up businesses —small business is the backbone of the city and they’re closing down.” The planned removal of some Geary Boulevard bus stops, which many seniors and disabled depend on, to create a fast lane is just one example of how “the elderly are being ignored” by city government, she said.

All were somewhat aghast at the flash flood of app-operated scooters dropped on San Francisco streets and sidewalks by enterprising start-ups. They pose a danger not just to older residents but anyone navigating city sidewalks. “You hear them coming behind you, all you can think about is your ankles,” said Alioto. “It boggles my mind that the tech industry would go over city government. No one got permission.” All agreed: Regulations are needed.

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Story by: Judy Goddess and Robin Evans, The Dignity Fund Coalition