Wendi Jonassen

Microfinance for radicals



In 1969, 11 antiwar protesters loced up at the Santa Rita County Jail began questioning each other about the future of the movement. By the time they were released, they’d decided that the creative nonviolent projects that were emerging would all need funding — and the Agape Foundation was born.

Agape, which celebrates its 40th anniversary Sept. 24, is not the only progressive foundation in San Francisco, and not the only source of money for small progressive groups. But it is, in many ways, the boldest, the one most willing to take risks on organizations that are new, small, and doing things far out on the political edge.

Nina Dessart, Agape’s administrative director, says the group is "unusual for funding only social justice or change." And unlike other foundations that look for long track records, Agape funds startups. Indeed, an organization must be less than five years old to be eligible for Agape’s funding options.

"We love to be the first ones [to give aid to an emerging cause,]" Dessart said. "It is hard to get grants to organizations without track records."

Some big, nationally prominent organizations also have benefited from Agape’s money, including Amnesty International, the National Farm worker Ministry, and Bread and Roses.

Agape — the name comes from the Greek word for altruism — also prides itself on helping the likes of People’s Grocery in West Oakland, a small operation that promotes food and health awareness in an economically depressed community.

And long before microloans became popular, the folks at Agape realized that a little money could go a long way. For example, the National Farmworkers Ministry "used [a] 1959 Plymouth station wagon [purchased with Agape funds] continuously until its demise in the autumn," according to Agape records. The group used the station wagon to bring food and relief to families whose families members had been jailed for picketing, to carry protesters to picket lines from jail, and to map out the picket lines.

Agape funds have supplied portable toilets for antinuclear protests. The group has been funding gay military counseling since 1972. That same year, Agape underwrote a four-day "consciousness raising" conference for ex-prisoners and their families. In 1975, Agape paid for the construction of the Trident Monster — a submarine-like sculpture used to raise awareness of nuclear weapons.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Agape gave money and support to antinuclear organizations such as the Honeywell Project and the Abalone Alliance — a time when groups that were constantly engaged in civil disobedience and defying federal and state authorities would have had trouble getting tax-exempt status.

Indeed, tax-status assistance has been one of Agape’s most powerful tools — groups can use the foundation as a fiscal sponsor and not have to worry about wrangling with tax documents.

Women for Genuine Security, a Bay Area advocacy group, uses Agape to process contributions to "minimize administrative aspects of getting a tax-exempt status," coordinator Gwen Kirk told us.

Five years ago Agape broadened its focus from fundraising by starting an annual awards program to spotlight the people and groups that are creatively and actively working toward peace. Nicole Hsiang, an Agape board member, explains that around the initiation of the Iraq War, Agape started giving out peace awards "to the real heroes."

Last year the Agape Peace Prize went to Nancy Hernandez, youth program coordinator of H.O.M.E.Y. (Homies Organizing to Empower Mission Youth). Hernandez used the money from the prize to take rival Mission District gang members camping. These youth — and those helped by Youth Together and other organizations funded, aided, and spotlighted by Agape — are "the next 40," Hernandez says, the ones at the forefront of social change for the next 40 years in San Francisco.

Jacqueline Cabasso, this year’s recipient of the Enduring Visionary Prize, is executive director of Western States Legal Foundation, which helped form the nation’s largest antiwar coalition, US Abolition 2000 and the People’s Nonviolent Response Coalition after 9/11.

Eileen Hansen, acting director of Agape, puts it simply: "We fund new, struggling, barely formed groups that can hardly call themselves an organization — and nobody else will take a chance on them," she said. "When you look back at the social justice movement over the past 40 years and all the groups we’ve helped, you have to wonder where that movement would have been without Agape."

Agape’s awards ceremony and anniversary party is Sept. 24, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Green Room, San Francisco War Memorial, 401 Van Ness. $50 donation. www.agapepeaceprize.org.

Word on the street



You see them everywhere. When you’re getting off Muni, when you’re crossing the street, in the corner of your eye: Street Sheets for sale. Behind every Street Sheet is a homeless person trying to legitimately make a buck and provide a voice for these frequently-ignored people and issues.

This month Street Sheet celebrates its 20th anniversary as the nation’s oldest, continuously operating street newspaper. Street Sheet is a newspaper focused solely on homelessness, poverty, and affordable housing issues and is distributed by homeless or formerly homeless vendors for a $1 donation.

The vendors keep the profits as a small source of income and, ideally, as a stepping-stone toward a a better life. Street Sheet, a project of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness, currently prints 16,000 copies twice a month with more than 200 vendors.

Lydia Ely, Street Sheet‘s editor for its first 10 years, believes that one of the paper’s strengths is the consistency of its mission. Bob Offer-Westort, the current coordinating editor, breaks down the mission into three objectives. The first is to provide supplemental income, in a dignified manner, to homeless men and women. Offer-Westort understands that this income is not a solution to homelessnees, but merely a stopgap measure.

Debbie, a vendor who has been selling the newspaper a couple times a week for eight years, uses the roughly $30 per day she earns to "make ends meet, pay for laundry and shampoo, or to go to the food bank."

The second mission, Offer-Westort says, is to "inform the broader public on issues that don’t make it into mainstream media." Even when homelessness, poverty, or housing issues seep into the news, they often are skewed, misinterpreted, or presented with a tone of judgment.

Andy Freeze, director of North American Street Newspaper Association, says street newspapers are "changing conversations around homelessness. Not everything revolves around drugs and alcohol," and street newspapers are bring the real issues of life on the streets to the forefront of discussion.

Despite pressure over the years to include positive stories for tourists, morality tales, horoscopes, and crosswords, Ely says Street Sheet continues to address serious news.

Last, Offer-Westort says, Street Sheet "creates a forum where an oppressed people get their voices heard." As of 2007, San Francisco’s official homeless count was 6,514; and in such a geographically small city, it is a community that is alternately ignored and vilified.

Even respectable vendors like Debby experience people who don’t understand Street Sheet. Debby says some people will "spit at you and call you names. They tell you to get a job." The irony in this is that the people yelling vulgarities at the vendors are the people in need of the education Street Sheet provides.

What those people don’t understand is that homelessness is not a choice and is not always drug or alcohol-related. In this economic crisis, Debby believes that a lot of the people who yell vulgarities "are just a paycheck away from being on the streets themselves."

But she doesn’t let the negativity get to her. "You learn a lot when you are on the other side of the fence. I have learned a lot about myself." Debby has an established spot to sell Street Sheet, a selling strategy, and has developed friendships with some of her regulars.

Offer-Westort, the coordinating editor for the past four years, says his role in the newspaper is not typical of editors in that he doesn’t write. Most of the stories are produced by homeless people. The Coalition on Homelessness includes three work groups — Civil Rights, Families and Immigration, and Right to a Roof — that work with volunteers and homeless or formerly homeless people to determine the content of each issue. Offer-Westort coordinates and "checks for spelling."

Much of what goes into print in street newspapers is "high quality journalism that is being recognized in their communities and nationally," according to Freeze. And while the mission of the paper hasn’t changed in 20 years, the material, as Ely says, has gotten better because of increased awareness and circulation.

When asked where Offer-Westort wants to see the paper in 20 years, he said he’d like to see it "going out of business because homelessness has ended."

Join Street Sheet‘s anniversary celebration Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at SomArts Gallery, 934 Brannan, SF. Admission is $25 and includes food, drink, and entertainment. For more details visit www.cohsf.org/artauction.

Protecting babies from fire and chemicals



GREEN CITY Profit-driven companies are fighting an expensive and underhanded battle to keep their toxic fire retardants in California’s furniture.

Senate Bill 772, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to exempt certain children’s furniture from California’s fire code, thereby allowing manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic fire retardants and giving consumers the opportunity to raise their babies around chemical-free furniture. But lobbying efforts last week stalled the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it will be reconsidered Aug. 26.

California’s onerous standards for fire safety are unique. According to Technical Bulletin 117, established by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings, all furniture manufactured in California must be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.

While there are other methods that meet California’s standards, such as barriers and safer chemicals, the cheapest way for manufacturers to meet TB 117 is to pour toxic, halogenated chemicals that act as fire retardants into all upholstered furniture.

This means that fire retardants are put in most things in your house — your couch, your mattress, your baby’s pillows and strollers. The companies producing the fire retardants are huge multinational corporations — Albermarle, Chemtura, ICL Industrial Corp. and Tosoh — spending millions on lobbying and in drafting nonprofit fronts.

The fire retardants go by a variety of technical names: polybrominated diphenyl ether, halogenated substances, TRIS, BFRs, CFRs … the list goes on. That chemical family is halogenated chemicals. The only one that is legal in all consumer products is decabrominated diphenyl ether, referred to as DECA. Some of the chemicals that are known to be toxic are only banned from certain products, such as pajamas in the case of TRIS, but are still being poured into everyting from electronics to clothing to upholstery.

SB 772 specifically focuses on four pieces of children’s furniture. After reviewing years of data, the Bureau of Home Furnishings found that bassinets, nursing pillows, strollers, and infant pillows have never caused fire causality. Leno contends, "There is no need to pour chemicals into products that are not fire risks."

Numerous studies and agencies, including the National Toxicology Program and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have linked halogenated chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, ADHD, child autism, and long list of other ailments. Some, like Seth Jacobson, spokesperson for Citizens for Fire Safety, argue that the studies are exaggerated and "not scientifically valid".

Any manifestation of these diseases may take years to see or are complicated by other factors, making correlations to specific chemicals difficult to pinpoint. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth believes that this is a comparable scenario to the asbestos crisis of the 1980s. Asbestos was a common household chemical long suspected of toxicity and in 1989, after numerous health and legal battles, the EPA banned it. Decades later the federal government is still spending billions in liability lawsuits affecting more than 600,000 people.

Another issue is bioaccumulation — these chemicals don’t stay put. According to Leno, these chemicals don’t bind to materials. Instead they fall to the floor and become part of dust. In 2006, the California EPA reported that "PBDEs have been measured in house and office dust, indoor air, plant and animal-based foods, terrestrial and marine animals, and in human breast milk, blood, and fat."

In 2008, scientists from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the Silent Spring Institute found that the levels of PBDEs in Californians are twice as high as other U.S. regions. The California EPA has reported that the highest tissue concentrations of PBDEs are found in California aquatic life, with rising levels in San Francisco Bay harbor seals. Long believes "this is one of the biggest toxic threats facing Californians today".

This is Leno’s second attempt at passing a bill involving these particular issues. The first, SB 706, introduced last year, sought to directly ban the use of toxic fire retardants. SB 706 was named the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Act, in memory of a 41-year-old firefighter who died of work-related, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is believed she developed the condition after breathing in dioxin (a highly toxic carcinogen) that was released from burning flame-retardants. Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Maine have already passed bills banning dioxin and have started phasing it out.

Banning chemicals is hard to do. Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California says that the petrochemical industry will slightly alter a banned chemical, "sort of chasing one version after another." In the United States, chemicals are mass-produced and distributed until they are found to be dangerous. In Europe, chemicals must be proven safe first.

The most outspoken opposition to both bills, SB 706 and SB 772, is a group called Citizens for Fire Safety. The group, headed by Jacobson, argues that fire retardants saves lives, noting that since California established TB 117 California structure fires have dropped by about 60 percent. Records from the National Fire Protection Association show a drop of 32 percent between 1980 and 2000. Yet other states, including New York, show a drop of 40 percent without a similar fire regulation. The drop can easily be ascribed to an increase in smoke detectors, better education, and more regulations on cigarettes: the number one fire instigator.

Citizens for Fire Safety’s funding is suspicious. Its Web site clearly states "a portion of our funding&ldots;comes from various chemical industry leaders." Indeed, Jacobson says he has no problems accepting funding from the same companies that manufacture the chemicals in question. Leno believes Citizens for Fire Safety is a "concerted business effort to confuse the public."

This nonprofit front is just one of the extraordinary efforts of the chemical companies to stop bills of this nature. According to Holober, the bromine companies spent between $6 million and $9 million on lobbyists and efforts to derail SB 706. This is the largest amount spent by a consumer-interest group in lobbying efforts, Leno and Holober say.

Public records show that the two biggest lobbying efforts on behalf of Citizens for Fire Safety represent the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, (which is funded by chemical corporations) and a PR group representing the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum. The BSEF represents all the major brominated flame-retardant companies.

Joe Kerr, president of Orange County Professional Firefighters Association Local 3631, makes more reasonable objections to SB 772. Kerr opposes the deregulation until "all the principals are brought to the table. Get the burn ward doctors, and the environmentalists, EPA, and Mark Leno together — because there are good arguments on both sides." In the meantime, Kerr doesn’t want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." He also voices concern that some consumers will stop buying California products if the state’s fire standard is lowered.
SB 772 is a deregulatory, pro-environment bill that gives the market the option to decide. Any product that does not meet regulations will be labeled accordingly. Leno voiced concern that the labels will confuse the issue and many amendments have been made about where the labels should be placed.
Although the bill was approved by the full Senate in June, heavy lobbying efforts prevailed in the Assembly and it fell three votes short in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week. Reconsideration has been granted for next week when the bill will need nine votes before it can proceed to the Assembly floor. If SB 722 does not get nine votes, it will be another year before it can be heard again.

How healthy is Healthy SF?



San Francisco is getting national attention for its attempt at universal health care. President Obama even applauded the city’s efforts in a speech: "Instead of just talking about health care, [San Francisco has been] ensuring that those in need receive it."

But Healthy San Francisco — a pioneering effort to do at the municipal level what the federal and state governments won’t — is running into some troubling problems, made worse by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s budget cuts.

The program was initiated by Tom Ammiano, now a state assemblymember, with backing from organized labor. Ammiano’s goal was to provide easy access to affordable health care for all of S.F.’s 60,000 uninsured. A local version of a single-payer program, he argued, could provide accessible primary and preventative care, alleviating the need for indigent patients to use the overcrowded and expensive San Francisco General Hospital emergency room as their primary medical provider.

Healthy San Francisco was launched on July 2, 2007, at two Chinatown clinics. It has grown dramatically, and now provides services to more than 34,000 residents at 27 clinics.

Although Newsom sat on the sidelines while Ammiano pushed the legislation, the mayor has now unashamedly claimed the program as his own to promote his gubernatorial campaign. On his Web site he boldly declares that "he’s created the only universal health care program in the country" — with no mention of Ammiano.

The $200 million-<\d>a-<\d>year program is partially funded by an employer-mandate requiring businesses with more than 20 employees either to provide health insurance or pay a fee to the city. The fees are broken down according to the size of the business; as of January 2009, employers pay between $1.23–<\d>$1.85 for every hour an employee works.

Like any traditional health insurance program, Healthy SF has annual fees and point-of-service charges paid by participants. The remainder of the program is funded through state grants.

Opposition to HSF surfaced immediately. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association sued the city even before the program started, alleging that the employer-spending mandate is a violation of federal law.

Kevin Westlye, the association’s executive director, claims his beef is not with the health care system, just with the employer mandate. He suggested that the city raise its sales tax to pay for the program — or that the financial burden should fall on the backs of the billionaires that run privatized health care and pharmaceutical companies.

But the city has only a limited ability to raise taxes, and any tax hike would require voter approval. The employer mandates and fees were much more politically feasible.

Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria, who is representing the city on the case, argues, "It is difficult to imagine, in these budget times, that San Francisco could provide universal coverage without employer health care spending requirements."

Federal courts sided with the GGRA initially, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the employer-spending mandate was legal. The GGRA appealed to the United States Supreme Court; the court will announce Oct. 5 whether it will hear the case.

That’s not the only litigation facing HSF. A group of low-income residents are suing the city, saying that the system’s annual fees and co-pays are too high. The program’s fees are scaled to the federal poverty level, which is currently set at an annual income of $10,830. A single person making between 101 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level — that is, between about $11,000 and $20,000 a year — pays $180 a year for HSF membership. People earning between $40,000 and $50,000 pay $1,350 a year.

There are also co-pays of $10 for medical visits and $5 to $25 for prescriptions — again, typical of health insurance plans.

Bay Area Legal Aid and the Western Center on Law and Poverty are representing three San Francisco residents who say those fees violate federal and state mandates, which stipulate that the city must provide free health care to those who can’t afford to pay. Healthy San Francisco is only one element of the lawsuit; it also claims that San Francisco General Hospital charges low-income people too much and that the city’s medical bills and collection practices aren’t fair.

One of the plaintiffs is Robyn Paige, a San Francisco resident with spine, foot, and hip injuries. Paige contends that she can’t afford the co-payments on her multiple medications each month and must either go without pain medication or borrow money. Lisa Qare, 21-year-old resident with MS, had to wait three weeks for medication for an eye condition that developed as a result of her condition.

A $10 co-pay may not seem like much, but when a patient needs several doctor visits a month and must pay $5 to $25 each for multiple prescriptions, it adds up. "As a result," Michael Keys, a Bay Area Legal Aid lawyer, told us, "those who can’t afford the charges are falling into medical debt or skipping services or medication."

And, not surprisingly, the cash-strapped city is having trouble finding enough staff and facilities to meet all the needs. Nancy Keiler, a Mission District resident and HSF participant, complains that clinic visits are too short, and that "the doctor is too hurried and has too many patients." (That’s a common complaint about private health plans, as well.) After waiting three hours, another HSF participant had to leave without her prescription to get back to work on time.

The long lines and waits will only get worse in the face of budget cuts. Pink slips were already handed out to several hundred San Francisco health care workers and 1,000 more may be laid off this fall.

Robert Haaland, who works with the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told us the staffing cuts will make the situation much worse. Martha Hawthorne, a public-health nurse, said she thinks that there won’t be enough providers to provide good care — and that many health care workers losing their jobs will have to enroll in HSF themselves, putting even more strain on the system.

Ammiano, the author of the plan, is concerned too. "I’m very worried about it," he said. "It seems to me now that if there’s this budget pain, there will be impacts to San Francisco."

Nathan Ballard, the mayor’s press secretary, tersely denied that HSF will feel any budget pain. Asked about critics’ allegations, he said, "They’re wrong. We are going to expand Healthy SF this year."

Earlier this month, insurance giant Kaiser Permanente joined HSF — meaning that the health care giant will now participate as a provider in the program. Haaland voiced concern about that move, calling it "privatizing through the back door."

Mitch Katz, the city’s public health director, agrees there are flaws to the system, but defends its success. "It is by no means a perfect program," he said, "but we’ve made a big impact." With national health care costs rising three times faster than wages (some believe that health care costs are rising five times faster than wages) the nation is starting to seriously talk about overhauling the entire system. San Francisco is being considered as a model for national health care reform.

Labor leaders have lauded the basic formula of HSF and pushed for the federal reforms to use it as a model. As San Francisco Labor Council executive director Tim Paulson said in a prepared statement, "In San Francisco we demonstrated that legislation providing public health access and corporate participation creates a real path to universal health care coverage."

Research assistance by Gabrielle Poccia

Busting bars



San Francisco’s legendary nightlife venues are being threatened by a state agency that over the last two years has adopted a more aggressive policy of enforcing its arcane rules, in the process jeopardizing both needed tax revenue and a vibrant, tolerant culture that these bureaucrats don’t seem to understand.

At issue is an arbitrary policy of the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. For the past two years, ABC has been on a campaign against a growing list of well-established clubs, bars, and entertainment venues in the city, an effort driven by vague rules and stretched authority. The community has rallied behind the bars and local politicians have spoken against ABC’s crusade, but the agency isn’t showing any signs of stopping.

Most recently, Revolution Café in the Mission District had to stop selling beer and wine for 20 days after ABC cited them for patrons drinking on the sidewalk adjacent to its front patio. Inner Richmond’s Buckshot’s liquor license was pulled because of technical violations of alcohol and food regulations, forcing owners to close their doors for a few weeks. Both bars stand to lose a substantial portion of their profits before returning to normal business operation.

DNA Lounge’s license is currently being held over its head because ABC saw operators as "running a disorderly house injurious to the public welfare and morals" after sending undercover agents in during queer events. State Sen. Mark Leno responded by telling the Guardian, "The ABC should enforce the law, not make statements relative to morals."

Café du Nord, Slim’s, Swedish Music Hall, Great American Music Hall, Rickshaw Stop, Bottom of the Hill, and a list of more than 10 others are also fighting long, expensive battles to stay open — but not because of underage drinking or drinking-related violence. In fact, most of these venues never had a run-in with ABC until two years ago. These bars’ livelihoods are being threatened because of an arbitrary technicality on their alcohol and food license.

ABC was established in 1957 with the mission to be "responsible for the licensing and regulation of the manufacture, sale, purchase, possession, and transportation of alcoholic beverages." ABC is funded through alcohol license fees, and has been run by governor-appointed director Steve Hardy since 2007, about the same time the crackdown started.

According to ABC spokesperson John Carr, the problem is that these clubs are deviating from their original business plans. The venues are "operating more like clubs, with only incidental food service." ABC didn’t notice any changes in these businesses until two years ago. In some cases, it took ABC 20 years to notice a change.

For example, when Café du Nord owners filled out the forms to get their business license, they were asked to predict the percentage of alcohol sales to food sales. Predictions didn’t pan out exactly, and ABC started an audit two years ago. The only recourse to an audit is to adhere to a random rule that requires these all-ages venues to serve 50 percent food and 50 percent alcohol. This rule is not a law, and ABC isn’t required to enforce it.

Slim’s has been cited on the same food/alcohol grounds. Its sister club, the Great American Music Hall, as well as Bottom of the Hill and most recently Buckshot all have similar 50/50 stories. All are fighting financially drowning battles with ABC. At some point in the court process, these bars must appear in ABC courts with judges hired by Steve Hardy.

Carr claims that only one venue, which he declined to identify, is being cited with the arbitrary 50/50 rule. All the other venues must adhere to their own specific ratio of food to alcohol, written in their original business plans. Regardless of the specific numbers, all are being threatened on the grounds that "they altered the character of their businesses […] which is different from the business plan they submitted to ABC when they were originally pursuing their ABC license."

Many of the bars in question have been around and thriving for decades with the same focus on business, music, and culture. Slim’s, for example, has been in San Francisco for 22 years, going the first 20 without a citation. But in the past two years, it has had four citations between it and the Great American Music Hall.

There is much speculation from all sides of this war about its causes, but no one seems to know why ABC, seemingly out of nowhere, started its crusade against music venues and clubs in San Francisco. Even the ABC is vague and unresponsive about this, broadly claiming it is acting on complaints and just doing its job.

Since the inception of the crackdown is a mystery, it seems fitting to focus on finding a resolution. The last thing anyone in this city wants is to see the clubs and venues shut down, something club operators say hurts the city’s culture. "Kids growing up with live music can only be good," said Dawn Holiday of Slim’s.

Beyond the culture and rich nightlife in question, bars and clubs bring in a significant amount of money to the state. Some of the bars alone can bring the state more than $5,000 each month in sales tax. In the current economic crunch, shutting down reliable sources of revenue doesn’t seem wise.

After two years of battles, ABC has taken some of the bigger hearings off the calendar in an attempt to come to a peaceful resolution. After talks with Hardy, Leno is hopeful for a positive end to the battles. Leno does not want to see any business closed and believes the best way to ensure a thriving nightlife is to establish a special license for the venues. If the only problem with our beloved venues is technicalities with the license, let’s change the license, not the venues.

In the meantime, the community is rallying around the bars and entertainment venues, showing its support. DNA Lounge started asking for donations for its legal proceedings. Visit its Web site for the full story and ways to contribute. When Buckshot reopens July 4, show up and support them. Maybe the best way to fight back is to go out and have a drink, listen to music, dance with queers, and over-indulge in unadulterated San Francisco culture.