Friday, June 26, 2009

A Community Left Out in the Cold

SAN FRANCISCO - Greg Macabenta, Baylan Megino and I answered the call of Rudy Asercion, Executive Director of the West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center, to attend the public hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on June 22 to speak out in favor of providing city funding to West Bay, the community non-profit agency that provided services last year to 3500 Filipino families in the South of Market (SOMA) district of San Francisco.

Rudy had sent out an SOS email expressing outrage that the Filipino community had been totally excluded from the $9-M of city funds that would be allocated to various community agencies throughout San Francisco. Every ethnic community in every section of the city would receive their share of city funds, all that is, except for the Filipino community which was completely shut out.

The public hearing would begin at 5 p.m. and Rudy lined up early to get us speaking cards so that we could express our support for the inclusion of the Filipino community in the allocation of community funds. When Greg, Baylan and I arrived at the second floor of City Hall, Rudy was there with our speaking cards informing us that “we’re no. 4”. We were relieved to think that we would be among the first to speak as we saw over 400 people lined up all over City Hall carrying their own speaking cards ready to advocate for funding their various community programs.

After waiting in line outside the chambers of the Board of Supervisors for about an hour, we learned to our frustration that before our “group 4” could speak, groups A to Z and 1 to 3 would speak first. Wow! Greg, publisher of Filipinas magazine, still had the July issue of his magazine to “put to bed” that evening so he couldn’t wait hours to speak. He asked Rudy’s permission to leave which Rudy gave, grateful that Greg had shown up to express his support.

All the ethnic groups from every part of the city were represented among those waiting to make their pitch for funding to the Supervisors. We were not the only Filipinos there as idealistic young Pinoy students from San Francisco State were poised to speak on behalf of the Veterans Equity Center (VEC), and young Pinays from the Asian Women’s Shelter (AWS) were also there to speak of the high incidence of domestic violence in the Filipino community. Representatives of a Filipino workers group providing support to exploited Filipino caregivers were there as well to make their case for funding.

Every one would be allotted one minute to speak and then the bell would ring which would alert the speaker to end his or her speech. While everyone more or less kept to the time requirement, a few would greatly exceed it, prompting a second bell.

It was about 10 p.m. when were told to line up as “group 4” would soon be called. A dozen speakers later and it was finally our turn. Rudy Asercion spoke first and described the vast array of services provided by West Bay to serve the poorest of the poor of SOMA including after-school tutorials, financial literacy and healthy lifestyle programs as well as life skills training. West Bay had collaborated with the Filipino Senior Center, the Filipino Family Resource Center, the South of Market Clinic and the SOMA Employment Center to present a comprehensive package of services for the Filipino community.

Rudy was followed by Baylan who pointed out that Filipinos comprise more than 6% of the San Francisco city population and that we have “the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest dropout rate, the highest mortality rate due to domestic violence, and the highest mortality rate in several types of cancer”. She expressed shock that given the basic needs of our community that no grant funds were recommended for any of the Filipino community organizations.

Then it was my turn. As a former elected official of the city for 18 years, I personally knew many of the Supervisors. In my speech, I described the history of West Bay as the most empowered and empowering Filipino community agency in the SOMA district. By 2005, after 35 years of solid work in the community, West Bay had been duly recognized by four city departments as the agency that best served the SOMA community and was properly awarded $468,501 in city funds for its various programs.

But then in that year 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a West Bay employee was involved in a Medicare scam in the South of Market district. This news article provided the district’s supervisor, Chris Daly, with the excuse to ask the Board of Supervisors to freeze the city funds that had already been allocated to West Bay until, he said, West Bay was cleared of any involvement in the Medicare fraud.

For two months the various city agencies that funded West Bay, together with the FBI, investigated the Medicare scam charge and determined that only one West Bay employee (out of 30 West Bay employees) was involved and she had already resigned. West Bay, they concluded, had nothing to do with the scam. Despite this clearance, however, the Board did not restore the funding back to West Bay, which was then forced to lay off all of its employees and to eliminate the programs that had been effectively serving the community since 1969.

But the Filipino community would not let West Bay die. Slowly but surely, over the years, under the leadership of Rudy Asercion, West Bay came back, once again serving the needs of the most underserved community in the city.

As my time was running out, I prepared to sum up. “Supervisors, I urge….” Then the bell rang and as I was about to finish my sentence, Supervisor John Avalos curtly cut me off saying “Thank you!” as if to say “Next!” Avalos did not do this to any other speaker. I looked at Avalos and remembered that he was Daly’s chief deputy in 2005 when Daly cut off the funds to West Bay. No wonder.

Later, as Rudy, Baylan and I left the chambers, one of the Supervisors, Bevan Dufty, ran after us to apologize for the discourtesy extended to me. He asked for more information about the programs of West Bay and promised to do what he could to restore the funds to West Bay.

A community forum to discuss the exclusion of the Filipino community in the San Francisco city budget will be held on Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 12 noon at the Social Hall of the San Francisco Philippine Consulate at 447 Sutter Street. For more information about West Bay, call (415) 431-6266 or log on to

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