Closing time

Closing time

San Francisco shuts a much-needed 24-hour homeless center

By Amanda Witherell

The sign on the door speaks the truth to the 200 people who pass through it everyday: “Buster’s Place/13th Street Drop-In will be permanently closing Monday March 31 at 5 p.m.”

Will, a trim, soft-spoken man seated inside Buster’s on a Monday afternoon, reading a paper and waiting for his laundry to finish spinning, says that starting April 1, “The street is going to be where I go. The Safeway sink is going to be my shower.”

Buster’s Place, a homeless services facility run by Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, is on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s midyear budget chopping block. But recently passed legislation says the city must provide a 24-hour drop-in center accessible to anyone. On March 18, the Board of Supervisors, by a vote of 9-2, passed “standards of care” mandating that all city-funded homeless shelters meet a basic level of sanitation and service, stocking facilities with toilet paper, soap, and nutritious food, as well as keeping at least one open 24 hours a day for anyone to walk in the door. (See “Setting Standards,” 1/30/08 and “Shelter Shuffle,” 2/13/08.)

Newsom tacitly supported the new law, but took issue with the $160,000 price tag — which does not include the $1 million it takes to run Buster’s for a year.

The Human Services Agency plans to temporarily fill Buster’s void with 150 Otis, a city-owned building across the street where storage and shelter reservations are provided for homeless people. In the past, it’s been an emergency shelter for men, but it is only permitted to operate nine months out of the year. On April 1 it will reopen with about 30 beds and 30 to 40 chairs — all for men — and will only be open until June 30, the end of the fiscal year. HSA did not respond before press time to multiple requests for more details on the plan.

Beyond trying to fix a permanent problem with a temporary solution, 150 Otis will be a shadow of Buster’s.

“Buster’s definitely handles more than 30 to 40 people a night,” said the Department of Public Health’s David Nakanishi. On March 20, for example, Buster’s staff reported to Nakanishi that 98 people were on-site at 3 a.m. — 90 males and eight females. They also reported 30 people at 3 p.m. and 80 at 8 p.m.; 90 was the average between midnight and 7 a.m. Overall, the staff sees 150-200 people a day.

The drop-in center is often the first place a newly homeless person goes for help. But now those people — especially women — will have one less option.

Buster’s manager, Carolyn Akbar, has been telling clients to go to the Free Clinics’ Oshun Center, which has 24-hour drop-in services for women. But, she said, “A lot of women don’t like to go there because it’s right in the heart of the Tenderloin.”

Funding for 150 Otis is coming from an HSA budget surplus. “They’re not saving any money. They said as much at the budget hearing,” said Sup. Chris Daly.

Already, other city-funded facilities are feeling the strain of one less helping hand. The Mission Neighborhood Resource Center has many of the same services as Buster’s, but is only open weekdays and already operating at capacity. Still, “I’m seeing my numbers spike up,” said director Laura Guzman. Contracted to serve 100 people a day, her staff tries to keep the number under 200, but lately it’s been closer to 250. “We had an incidence of violence last week as a result of more people in the facility,” Guzman said. Guzman called drop-in facilities “critical players in our system of care. “When everything else fails, the drop-in is there.”

Necessities like showers, laundry, restrooms, telephones, and access to medical and dental services can be found at Buster’s. Also, unlike any of the 15 other city-funded places for homeless people, it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is “low threshold,” meaning there are no basic requirements to come in.

Nakanishi listed several reasons why a drop-in center aids in overall public health, from preventing deaths on the street to providing a place to take a shower and use the bathroom. A Request for Proposals put out by DPH to continue the 24-hour drop-in services next year is also on hold, shaving a slim million from the city’s budget.

Tenderloin Health, which operates a drop-in center on Golden Gate Avenue, was one of the respondents to DPH’s RFP for a 24-hour center and said it was more than willing to extend operating hours past the current 11:30 p.m. closing time.

“The funding was pulled the same day we submitted the proposal,” said Colm Hegarty, director of development for the nonprofit. “We would do it. Our proposal was very specific.”

Drop-in centers have been criticized as places where people hang out and avoid the shelter systems and services they provide, but that was never the intention for Buster’s, which has only been open for 13 months. “The program was designed to really have around the clock case management,” said Nakanishi, who wrote the RFP.

Akbar said Homeless Outreach Team officers were supposed to be working with center staff to move people deeper into the care system, but she’s been told they’re too busy working with people on the streets.

Which is what Buster’s is all about. Most of the people still on the streets aren’t interested in doing something to change their situations, points out Keith Bussey, deputy director of integrated health services for the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. “But people who come into a drop-in are in that pre-contemplative stage of change. They’re venturing inside for maybe the first time.”

Will is unequivocal about Buster’s proposed replacement: “Not 150 Otis. I don’t want anything to do with 150 Otis because of the people who work there.” Claiming he’s received rude treatment there too many times, Will even stopped using the storage facility there. Middle-aged and homeless in San Francisco for the past couple of months, he sleeps outside and after two stays in the city’s shelters said, “Never again.”

“Ultimately it’s going to hurt the city,” said Hegarty of the closing. “You’ll see more of a presence on the streets. People will want to see something done about it, so there will be more police responding. The criminal justice system is going to become burdened. The emergency room at San Francisco General is going to become burdened. People will go anywhere they can just to get off the streets.”

Originally published March 26, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian