By Janice Bressler
All five candidates who are running to become the Richmond District’s next supervisor took part in a virtual candidates forum on May 6 to pitch their vision of how the neighborhood can best tackle its most pressing problems.
The shelter-in-place order made in-person appearances on a town hall stage impossible, so instead, the five hopefuls – Connie Chan, Sherman D’Silva, Amanda Inocencio, Marjan Philhour and Veronica Shinzato – all appeared on a Zoom webinar on the computer screens of about 100 participating Richmond residents.
The catalyst and lead host for the event was Richmond Rising, a community organizing group dedicated to building civic engagement and empowerment in the Richmond District.
“If ever there has been a need for empowering our community, it is now,” said Marria Evbuoma, a Richmond Rising member who gave the opening remarks for the forum.
“By being here tonight we are making history,” Evbuoma told the virtual crowd. “This is the first virtual candidate forum in San Francisco.”
She also thanked the broad coalition of community organizations who worked to make the forum possible, including the Richmond YMCA, Faith in Action, Golden Gate Senior Center, People Power Media, Richmond District Neighborhood Center, Housing Rights Committee, Richmond District Democratic Club and Race to Zero Waste.
From a table in the Toy Boat Café on Clement Street, sitting in front of his laptop computer, Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a Richmond resident, former SF Examiner columnist and a KQED reporter, served as moderator for the virtual panel. Rodriguez kicked things off by inviting the candidates to briefly introduce themselves.
Chan, a first generation San Franciscan who arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown at age 13, promised strong advocacy to address “the income divide that is leaving behind too many working families and small businesses.”
D’Silva, who was born and raised in the Richmond District and has run for D1 supervisor in the past three elections, said his core issues are “basic things, like city trash cans not being emptied, litter on the sidewalk, livability issues.”
Inocencio, a criminal defense attorney who has never before run for office, stressed her status as an outsider who is not part of any established political camp.
Philhour, a consultant who ran unsuccessfully for D1 supervisor in 2016, said that her priority is to acknowledge that “we are all hurting” as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and to promote collaboration by putting aside political differences.
Shinzato, who has worked for local and state government for more than two decades, said that her commitment to vulnerable populations stems from her personal experience as an immigrant from Peru, and as a single mother, and as the result of living with and caring for elderly parents.
The record levels of homelessness in the district, including homeless youth, was one of the key issues addressed by the candidates. The costs and challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the growing budget deficit, informed almost every aspect of the discussion. While all candidates condemned the problem of homelessness and said generally that it was a priority, distinct differences emerged when the candidates were pressed on specifics.
Chan called homelessness “a symptom of a systemic problem. And that problem is lack of equity in access to healthcare, housing, jobs, and fiscal security.” She cited a 2019 city study that found the majority of homeless in San Francisco were tenants before they became homeless.
“So the best way to solve homelessness is to prevent it from happening,” Chan said. To do that, Chan offered a range of programs, including housing assistance and free legal counsel for tenants.
Inocencio asserted that a key plank in a program to combat homelessness would be a change in the Landerman -Petris-Short (LPS) Act, a statute that allows individuals who are deemed a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness to be conserved.
“Homelessness is inextricable from mental illness,” she said. “We need to look at the LPS Act and consider conserving more people that can’t take care of themselves. It’s a shame that we allow people with such extreme mental health issues to be on the streets.”
Shinzato stressed the growing problem of homeless youth on the streets of the district and in Golden Gate Park.
“You should not be a San Francisco Unified School District student and be unhoused,” she said.
Moderator Rodriguez followed up Shinzato’s remarks with a personal reflection on a recent tragedy of youth homelessness in our community.
“On that note,” Rodriguez said, “I had a student of mine … who was homeless the last three years, and he just died while seeking social services. Richmond District born and raised. Saddest thing.”
D’Silva advocated changes in zoning restrictions and relaxing building restrictions to address the problem of homelessness.
“I believe if more units are available, I think that will address a lot of the issue of homelessness.”
Philhour acknowledged that “we are seeing more and more individuals homeless in the Richmond District” and offered that her own father-in-law had been homeless for a time in Golden Gate Park when he first arrived in San Francisco. She called for more navigation centers and said that the issue of homelessness “cannot be discussed in silos.”
Sharp differences between the candidates’ positions were highlighted when they were asked about Mayor London Breed’s refusal to abide by the emergency ordinance, passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in response to the Covid-19 crisis, to procure more hotel rooms to house thousands more vulnerable homeless people.
Chan called the mayor’s resistance to fully and aggressively implementing the ordinance “callous inaction” and urged that full compliance with the ordinance was a vital measure to protect the vulnerable and control the spread of COVID-19.
Shinzato agreed with Chan, saying: “This is a public health crisis. We have to get our homeless off the streets.”
Philhour and D’Silva, in contrast, said that they believed that the mayor was doing all that she could on this issue. Inocencio admitted to being unfamiliar with the controversy.
The forum, which lasted about two hours and included selected questions from the participating virtual audience, covered a wide range of other issues, including the perennial problem of creating more affordable housing, the accountability of elected officials and the worsening problem of traffic congestion with the advent of ride share companies like Lyft and Uber.
To learn more about Richmond Rising, go to https://www.facebook.com/richmonddistrictrising/