Another shelter down

Another shelter down

Women are casualties as St. Anthony shuts Marian Residence

By Amanda Witherell

Inside the front door of the Marian Residence for Women, a small handmade sign by a former resident advises newcomers, “Don’t compare this place to any others.”

But I’ve stayed in the city-funded homeless shelters, and after a night at Marian, it’s hard not to rave about the differences. I’m given an actual bed to sleep on, with freshly laundered sheets, blankets, and a pillow. The bathrooms and showers are clean, and I’m offered every toiletry I could possibly need — as well as pajamas. Dinner is a wholesome meal of turkey, potatoes, and steamed greens — not the mystery meat on Wonder bread I received at the city’s MSC South shelter.

And unlike the tension I’ve witnessed at other shelters, the atmosphere inside Marian is close to pacific. After dinner, the 29 other women shower, read, rest on their beds, work on their laptops, or talk quietly while sitting at small tables in the common area. After my mandatory shower, I sit with an employee who explains the rules — be respectful of others, no drinking or drugs, and don’t forget to do my chore, which is assisting with dinner service. As long as I’m home by 7 p.m., I can have my bed as long as I need it.

That is, she clarifies, until the end of August — when they’re closing the shelter. For good.

Marian is a casualty of a plan by St. Anthony Foundation to cut $3 million from the foundation’s operating budget. In addition to closing the $1.2 million Marian facility, which houses 30 women in the emergency shelter and 27 in a transitional program, St. Anthony also will shutter its 315-acre organic dairy farm in Petaluma, currently used as a rehabilitation program for homeless addicts. Its Senior Outreach and Social Services [SOSS] is also losing staff and office space as it consolidates with the Social Work Center.

Five of the foundation’s 11 programs face cuts, the result of a two-year sustainability study that St. Anthony’s executive director, Father John Hardin, said will keep the charity out of a fiscal tailspin.

“We’re not in a financial crisis,” he told the Guardian. “The reason we’re doing this is so we won’t be in a financial crisis.”

He said the closures reflect the organization’s desire to get back to basics.

But, as one of the 40 soon-to-be-laid-off employees said, “They’ve said they want to refocus on basic services, but I see shelter as a basic service.”

St. Anthony receives no city money for the work it does, but the closures are occurring in what’s already a war zone of budget cuts for social services in San Francisco. The loss of any of St. Anthony’s programs affects the city as a whole.

“Are we concerned? Yes,” said Dave Knego of Curry Senior Services, which frequently refers seniors the group can’t help to St. Anthony’s SOSS program. “Unfortunately, we already have a waiting list, and the city’s cutting our funding back by 10 percent.”

The closure of Marian is yet another sign of the slow erosion of shelter space in San Francisco. Since July 2004, 364 shelter spots have disappeared. By the end of August, Marian’s 57 beds and Ella Hill Hutch’s 100 mats will be gone as well. “You can’t afford to lose 57 beds, especially in a place where women are being treated like human beings,” said Western Regional Advocacy Project’s Paul Boden, who’s worked with homeless services in the city since the 1980s. “What I thought was really ironic was there wasn’t any attempt to build a community effort to discuss how to save this facility. These beds are an incredibly important community resource.”

Some of the women who live in the transitional program at Marian wanted to rally and save the shelter. “First and foremost was to try to save Marian Residence for Women,” said Leticia Hernandez, a two-year resident of the transitional program who still hasn’t lined up a place to go when the shelter closes. “Even if we couldn’t save it, we thought it was still worth a try because any money that would come would go back to them.” The women drafted a letter asking for help, which they’d hoped management would distribute to the press and public.

The foundation, Hernandez said, had a “thanks, but no thanks” response.

Hardin told us that St. Anthony’s wasn’t facing a financial crisis, so “we’re not going to get up and cry wolf. We want to go back to some of the basics. We’re turning people away from the clinic,” he pointed out.

He agreed that shelter was a basic service, but said, “We can’t do it all.”

The foundation wouldn’t detail its intentions for the building once it’s vacated Aug. 31, beyond affirming that it would be rented. “That’s going to be an income generator,” said foundation spokesperson Francis Aviani. “We are hoping to get a social service agency to use the space in the way it’s designed for, helping folks.”

Multiple St. Anthony employees said they were told the facility would be used for medical respite — beds set aside for people who aren’t in critical condition, but are too ill or fragile to mingle with the general population and have nowhere else to go — and a St. Anthony board member confirmed that was the only plan presented to the board.

Marc Trotz, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Housing and Urban Health division, which oversees its $2.5 million, 60-bed medical respite program currently housed in two facilities, told us the city is looking for a new respite site. He confirmed that the Marian building is a facility the agency has seriously considered. “We’re not looking to push one program out in favor of another or anything like that.” But, he said, “It’s a potential site that would work well.”

While St. Anthony is cutting $3 million in programs, foundation staffers have been working for several years on a $22 million capital campaign for a new administrative building at 150 Golden Gate Ave. The building will replace a facility at 121 Golden Gate, where offices, the clinic, an employment center, and a dining room are currently housed. The popular dining room — which serves 2,600 meals a day — will ultimately move back to 121 Golden Gate after the building is razed and rebuilt to meet modern earthquake safety standards. The project is part of another $20 million campaign that includes a partnership with Mercy Housing to build affordable rentals on the upper floors.

St. Anthony staffers say the types of donors who will contribute to a new building are very different from those who will fund ongoing programs.

Meanwhile, food costs in the dining room have increased 18 percent in the last three months, and St. Anthony staffers expect another 25 percent increase during the coming quarter. At the same time, other free food programs in the city have closed, which means St. Anthony is seeing new faces in the dining room.

Aviani confirmed that donations have increased 8 percent to 10 percent, but the group receives very few “unrestricted” funds. Most of the money is earmarked for the dining room. In a way, she said, “that’s the community deciding what they want.”

A third of the organization’s $19.7 million budget comes from bequests — a form of donation that has waxed and waned in recent years. According to Aviani, the foundation has yet to receive a single bequest this year.

The group has increased grants and deployed new fundraising methods, but she said that “The amount of grants out there for shelters and women’s programs are few and far between.” She acknowledged that shelters are needed, and said St. Anthony has been “pretty outspoken about that.”

The foundation has kept a tight lid on talk about the closures. None of the employees contacted by the Guardian would speak on the record — for fear, they said, of losing their severance packages.

Aviani said severance packages — which include pay and personal job coaching — are not on the line. “We asked them not to create a gossip chain, to stay focused on their work, and when people have questions, direct them to me. We didn’t say they couldn’t talk to anyone at all. That wasn’t the message at all.”

Whether or not the gag order was intentional, it has had an effect and created suspicion about the foundation’s true intentions.

Even the city deferred to the organization when questioned about the potential plan to rent the Marian building and use it as a medical respite facility. “We’re not going to talk about that,” said DPH spokesperson Eileen Shields. “We’re going to let St. Anthony talk about that at this point because it’s St. Anthony’s call.”

On Feb. 14, Newsom — who has said shelters don’t solve homelessness — announced he would like to redesign the city’s shelters and called on the community to come up with suggestions. One of his specific suggestions was to create more medical respite centers.

In May, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which is chaired by Hardin, released a report outlining a number of detailed suggestions for improving city-funded shelters and services. It specifically stated that shelter beds shouldn’t be sacrificed to make room for respite.

The Mayor’s Office has yet to formally respond to the report, but at the June 2 LHCB meeting, Kayhan said there were a few things he felt confident the mayor would endorse.

“We heard loud and clear: more senior beds,” Kayhan said. “And I’ll add to that women’s beds.” He said that respite care would be “moving and co-locating with another location. We think that could free up space at one of the shelters.” And, he added, that space could be allocated to women or seniors.

Which makes it sound like more beds for women and seniors are in the works — but considering the elimination of Marian and a shelter at Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, the city is still looking at a net loss of places for the homeless to sleep at night.

Board member Laura Guzman, who runs the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, said she heard Hardin announce the Marian closure at a May 5 meeting. “He said it was a very difficult decision. I believe he said we’re going to try to open some medical respite beds,” Guzman said. “All along we’ve said we don’t want to replace shelter with medical respite beds, but that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Shuttering Marian is just one more loss in an environment of dwindling resources for women. Buster’s Place, the only 24-hour drop-in center for men and women, closed in March, and was replaced by a smaller facility that only allows men.

Five of the city’s other shelters have sections for women, but one of them is slated to close as well and none can offer a women-only safe space like Marian. A Woman’s Place is the only other all-female facility, and its 15 mats on the floor are always full. “With Marian closing, there’s going to be more of a demand on the total system,” said Janet Goy, executive director of Community Awareness and Training Services, which runs A Woman’s Place. “It’s a loss, no question.”

Emily Murase of the Commission on the Status of Women said it’s difficult to accurately count homeless women because women tend to take more measures than men to stay off the streets, though they may not necessarily be safely housed. Women are more prone to couch-surf, stay in abusive relationships, or settle for some other kind of compromised situation.

Murase’s group now funds a special women-only program at Glide Memorial Church, whose director, Willa Seldon, said, “We’re certainly seeing an increase in volume of women in the city to our programs. In October, we were seeing 11 in our support groups. That increased to 18 by March. It could definitely be related to Buster’s Place closing.”

Hardin acknowledged the need for women’s shelters but said the city ought to take on the burden. “Maybe closing the Marian is a tipping point,” he said. “As I said in front of the Board of Supervisors, it’s the government’s responsibility to provide the safety net. We’re the hands beneath the safety net.”

Sandy Van Dusen has been living in the transitional program for a year and a half since her husband was murdered. She’s been told that she is about to get a studio apartment. She’s visibly excited about the move, and grateful to the foundation. But, she says, she’s still been crying every day since she heard Marian is closing. “They saved my life,” she says, crying a little now. “They’re doing what they told me to never do — throw in the towel.”

Originally published June 17, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian