Inside San Francisco’s confounding system of housing the homeless
By Amanda Witherell
Photo by Charles Russo
EDITOR’S NOTE Guardian reporter Amanda Witherell and intern Bryan Cohen spent almost a week staying in various San Francisco homeless shelters. To get an unfiltered look at the conditions, they didn’t identify themselves as journalists, so some names in this story have been changed to protect people’s privacy. Their undercover reporting was supplemented with extensive research and on-the-record interviews with key officials, providers, and recipients of homeless services.
It’s about quarter past seven on a Thursday night, and I’m late for curfew. Not even during my wildest high school days did I have to be home by a certain time, but tonight, 29 years old and sleeping in a homeless shelter, I’m supposed to be in by 6:30 p.m.
Heading down Fifth Street toward the shelter, I wonder what I’ll do if I lose my bed for being late. Can they set me up at a different shelter? Will I have to head back to a resource center in the Tenderloin or the Mission District to wait in line for a reservation somewhere else? Either way, I could be walking the streets for the next few hours, so I adjust my heavy backpack for the journey. Waiting to cross Bryant Street, I stare up at the large, hulking building with its utilitarian name, Multi-Service Center South, and notice there are no shades on the windows in the men’s dorm. Since it’s lit from within, I can clearly see someone standing beside his cot, clad in nothing but blue plaid boxers, obviously unaware that he’s so exposed. I wonder if the windows would be shaded if it were the women’s room. Maybe that’s why we sleep in the basement.
Inside the door I shed my pack and step through the metal detector. The security guard dutifully pats it down and pushes it back into my arms. At the desk I give the last four digits of my Social Security number and am checked in. No questions about being tardy. I’m in.
I’m also late for dinner. A staffer hands me two unwrapped sandwiches from a reused bread bag under the counter. Ham, mustard, and American cheese between two pieces of cheap, sliced bread. After two days in the shelter I still haven’t seen a piece of fruit or a vegetable. I wrap the sandwiches in the newspaper under my arm and head down to my bunk. On the stairs I pass a guy and nod hello. He nods back, then calls out, “Hey, can I ask you something?”
I turn. “Sure.”
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in here?”
I shrug and step back, unsure of what to say.
“I’m not trying to mess with you,” he says. “I’m not fucking with you. I don’t do drugs. I’m straight. I don’t mess with anything,” he goes on, trying to reassure me.
I believe him and dish it back. “Then what’s a nice guy like you doing in here?”
He laughs and shrugs. He tells me he doesn’t really stay here. It’s just for a couple of days. He lives in a $200 per week hotel in Oakland, but if he stays there more than 28 consecutive days, it becomes residential and the rates go up, so he clears out for a few days every month and comes here. The hotel’s nicer than this, he claims. It’s clean and safe, and he has his own space. “I can walk around in my underwear,” he says.
We sit on the stairs, talking about how you lose all your privacy when you stay in a shelter, how the regimentation is reminiscent of prison. There are no places to go and be on your own, rest, and be quiet. Once you’re in for the night, you can’t leave except to step out for a smoke.
I ask if he has a job. He tells me he’s a chef for Google. I raise an eyebrow, recalling that the company’s stock is hovering somewhere between $600 and $700 per share right now. The pay isn’t the problem — he gets $16 an hour, but he’s been out of town for a while, caring for a sick family member, and has just returned. He got his job back, but only part-time, and he lost his home.
He’s wary of being on welfare — that’s not the way his mother raised him — but he’s in the County Adult Assistance Program, which gets him $29 every two weeks, a guaranteed bed at the shelter, and a spot on a waiting list for a single-room-occupancy hotel room, the bottom rung on the permanent-housing ladder.
What he really wants is a studio, but his searches haven’t turned up anything affordable. He needs a little boost of cash for a security deposit on an apartment, but when he asked the General Assistance Office if it could help him out with that, the answer was no.
His brow furrows with concern, and then the conversation turns to me. “You got a job?” he asks.
What can I say? I’m a reporter for a local newspaper. I’ve heard that some of the city’s homeless shelters are lacking basic standards, accessing a bed can be complicated, and services are scattered. I thought I’d come find out for myself.
Here’s what I learned: San Francisco has a cumbersome crazy quilt of programs, stitched together with waiting lists and lines. Policies that are written on paper and espoused in City Hall are often missing in shelters. Some rules don’t seem to exist until they’ve been broken. Others apply to some people, but not all. Getting a bed is a major hurdle, and I say that as a stable, able, mentally competent, sober adult.
And once you’re in, it’s sort of like sitting in a McDonald’s for too long. Years ago a friend told me the interiors of fast food restaurants are deliberately designed to make you feel a little uncomfortable. They don’t want you to get too cozy; they want you to eat and leave, making way for the next hungry mouth they can feed.
In other words, shelters are designed to make people not want to use them.
The only information I took with me was a one-page handout I got from a San Francisco Police Department Operation Outreach officer. He said it’s what cops and outreach workers give to people they come across who are sleeping on the streets. I figure if it’s good enough for them, it’s all I need to navigate the system.
The map, as it were, is a cramped, double-sided list of places to get free meals, take showers, store your stuff, sober up, and, of course, get a bed.
For the bed, it instructs, you have to go to a resource center and make a reservation. Some of the resource centers are also shelters. Some aren’t. Some are just reservation stations. They all have different operating hours and are located all over the city, but mostly in the Tenderloin and South of Market.
It takes me a while to puzzle out which ones are open, where exactly they are, then which is closest to me. Phone numbers are also listed, so I assume it’s like making a hotel reservation and dial one up on my cell phone.
The first number doesn’t work. There’s a digit missing. Dialing methodically down the list, I discover that none of the numbers connect me to a person. This is obviously not the way to go.
The way I ultimately get into a shelter is not the way you’re supposed to. In San Francisco’s system, you’re not supposed to just walk up to a homeless shelter and get a bed, but that’s what I do.
At first the woman behind the counter at MSC South tells me the only open beds are across town, at Ella Hill Hutch in the Western Addition. Then another staffer looks at the clock and says he’s not sending me out there. He’ll “drop” beds instead.
The city’s 1,182 beds for single adults are managed through an electronic database called CHANGES. It’s a modern-day improvement on people roaming from shelter to shelter everyday, putting their names on lists for possible beds. Launched in 2004, CHANGES now does that electronically and maintains profiles of people who use the system. If you’ve been kicked out of a shelter, missed your tuberculosis test, or not shown up for curfew, CHANGES knows and tells on you.
Every day around 8 p.m. shelter staff trawl through the reservations and drop the no-shows, cancellations, and reservations that have expired or whose makers have moved on to hospitals, rehab, the morgue, or — less frequently — housing.
MSC is allowed to make reservations for any shelter except itself — that’s against policy. I learn this the next morning, and I’m told it’s because there’s too much corruption and favoritism. MSC is apparently one of the better shelters, so to keep clients from cutting deals with staff, the policy doesn’t allow clients to reserve a bed there.
But after half an hour the staffer hooks me up for a two-night stay, bending the rules to do so. While I’m waiting, he turns away a client who had a seven-day bed but didn’t show up the previous night. The guard confiscates his fifth of vodka, and he gets an earful about drinking.
When the city’s shelter system was born in 1982, it was first come, first serve at the doors of churches and community centers. President Ronald Reagan’s cuts to federal domestic spending landed hard on low-income people, so then-mayor Dianne Feinstein called on local organizations to temporarily house and feed the growing number of street sleepers.
Throughout the ’80s wages stagnated while the cost of living soared: between 1978 and 1988 the average rent for a studio apartment in San Francisco jumped 183 percent — from $159 a month to $450. Twenty years later it’s $1,114. In 1978 the Housing and Urban Development budget was $83 billion. Today it’s $35.2 billion, almost nothing by federal budgetary standards, and almost no new public housing units have been built since 1996, while 100,000 have been lost.
Every year the federal government spends almost twice as much on a single attack submarine as the Department of Housing and Urban Development spends on homeless assistance. State and local governments have been left to pick up the hefty price tag.
San Francisco spends more than $200 million on homelessness, through services, financial aid, supportive housing, emergency care, and shelter beds. There are 13 city-funded shelters, four resource centers, and three reservation stations in San Francisco. The Human Services Agency spends $12.5 million per year on shelters through contracts with nonprofit managers. The Department of Public Health also manages two contracts, for a battered women’s shelter and a 24-hour drop-in center.
But it’s not enough: the nonprofits supplement operating expenses with grants and private donations and recently relied on a special allocation of $300,000 to purchase basic supplies like soap, towels, hand sanitizer, sheets, pillows, and blankets.
James Woods, a spry 51-year-old wearing a red Gap parka barely zipped over his thin, scarred chest, rattles off the places he’s lived: Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, Louisville, Ky., and his hometown, Nashville, Tenn. “Out of all the cities I’ve been in, this is the only city where you have to go and make a reservation for a bed at the rescue mission all the way across the city in order to come back to the place you started,” he says, jabbing the floor of MSC with his cane. “I can’t even make a reservation here for a bed here. They’ll send me across the city to another place to do that.”
Woods has been pounding the pavement between MSC and the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center for eight months. Every day around 3:30 p.m. he heads to the Tenderloin, where he gets in line for a bed. Woods has a fractured hip and arthritis, pins in his knees and feet, and hepatitis C. He’s been HIV-positive since 2002. He walks with a limp that can transform into a springy, stiff-legged canter when he chases the 27 bus down Fifth Street.
Rather than tote all of his possessions with him, he hides them in the drawer of an emergency bed at MSC, so it’s imperative that he get back there every night. Sometimes he waits hours for an MSC bed to open up.
Though Woods speaks highly of some city services, swooning a little when he mentions his doctor at the Tom Waddell Health Center, the daily bed hunt has left him exhausted and disgusted with the city. “They’ve got the program designed to run the homeless off,” he says. “They have it as hard and difficult as possible for you to take a breath, take a rest, get a routine.”
While a person can reserve a bed for one to seven nights and, if on General Assistance, make arrangements through a caseworker for 30- to 90-day stays, Woods has rarely been able to procure a bed for longer than one night. “Maybe twice I’ve gotten a seven-day bed,” he says.
The inability to connect people with beds is not lost on city officials. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s recently hired homeless policy director, Dariush Kayhan, told me, “I really want to solve the issue of the juxtaposition of vacant beds and homeless people on the streets. That to me is untenable.”
However, he only discussed the issue in terms of people who’ve chosen not to use the shelters and are sleeping in the street. To him, empty beds signify that there’s more than enough shelter for people. “At this time there’s no plan to expand any shelter beds, and I think homeless people, in many ways, many of them vote with their feet and have decided that shelter’s not for them,” he said.
But the Guardian found that even if you are willing and waiting for a bed in a place where someone can presumably connect you with one, it often doesn’t happen.
According to the 2007 Homeless Count, there are 6,377 homeless people in San Francisco. The nine year-round single-adult shelters have enough beds to accommodate one-third of that population. Other emergency facilities shelter some of the overflow on a seasonal basis. The remaining homeless sleep in jails and hospitals, respite and sobering centers, parks and sidewalks.
People also pile up at Buster’s Place, the only 24-hour drop-in resource center in the city, where they slump all night in chairs, forbidden by staff to sleep on the floor.
It took Guardian writer Bryan Cohen five nights to find a spot at a shelter. He spent Jan. 20 and 21 at Buster’s waiting to see if a bed would open up. None did. According to the shelter vacancy report for those two nights, there were 108 and 164 beds set aside for men that went unfilled. On an average night this January, a month marked by cold weather and flooding rain, 196 beds were empty.
Buster’s does not have access to CHANGES but can apparently call shelters and ask about empty beds. I was at the Providence Foundation shelter one night and overheard a call come through and shelter staff tell whoever rang that no, they couldn’t bring more people here. There were four empty mats beside me.
Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, said CHANGES was a breakthrough in getting people into beds, but when it was first launched in 2004, things were different. “You had a choice. Shelter of choice was much easier to achieve. Then Care Not Cash happened,” she said.
Most of the city’s beds are assigned to beneficiaries of certain programs, like Swords to Ploughshares and Newsom’s signature plan Care Not Cash, or to people with mental health or substance abuse issues who have case managers.
Though beds can be turned over to the general public when they are dropped after curfew, one wonders how effectively that happens.
The challenges are worst for Latinos, refugees, and immigrants, who face language barriers and the potential hurdle of illegality.
As a result, they flood one of the few places they can get in. Dolores Street Community Services reported the second-lowest vacancy rate in January, just 5 percent. The 82-bed program hosts a waiting list and is one of the more flexible in the city — deliberately so, as many of its Latino participants have jobs or work as day laborers. Marlon Mendieta, the executive program director, says, “They have a plan and just need to save up some money to move into a place.”
However, rising rents have made moving on difficult. “We have people who are basically just cycling from one shelter to another,” Mendieta said. “We see some who exit our shelter, find housing, but might end up back at the shelter if rent goes up or they lose work.”
Providence is one of the sparest of homeless facilities and is located in a Bayview church. Unlike at other shelters, there’s no hanging out here. When the doors open at 9:30 p.m. about 90 people with reservations are already lined up in the rain on its dark side street.
We receive one blanket apiece, and the men shuffle into the gym while I follow the other females into a smaller side room, where 12 mats are laid out on two ratty tarps. Several women immediately lie down, speechless.
The cook gives a quick blessing when plates of food arrive on two sheet pans: spaghetti, heavily dressed salad, limp green beans mixed with cooked iceberg lettuce, and a very buttery roll. It’s all heavy and slightly greasy, but also warm and a closer approximation of a square meal than any of those offered by the other shelters I’ve stayed in so far.
Moments after I finish eating the lights are turned off, even though a couple of women are still working on their meals. A shelter monitor comes through and confiscates our cups of water, saying she just refinished the floors in here and doesn’t want any spills. I notice that unlike at other shelters where I’ve stayed, none of the women here have bothered to change into pajamas. Some haven’t even removed their shoes. I follow suit, tucking my jacket under my head for a pillow and pulling the blanket around me.
When the lights come back on at 5:45 a.m., I understand why no one changed: there’s no time to get dressed. Shelter monitors enter the room, rousting sleepers with catcalls to get up and get moving. One turns on a radio, loud. They’re brisk and no-nonsense, grabbing blankets and shoving them into garbage bags, pulling mats into a stack at the edge of the room.
A woman becomes perturbed by being hustled and talks back to the shelter monitor. A verbal battle ensues, with the client picking up her mat and throwing it across the room, scattering her possessions. “What a woman, what a woman,” the shelter monitor yells. “We’ll see if you get a bed here tonight.”
Another staffer comes through with a toxic-smelling aerosol, which she sprays around us as we get ready to leave. The bathroom, the cleanest I’ve come across in the city’s shelter system, is still a clusterfuck as a dozen women wait to use the three toilets and two sinks. One stall has a broken door, and the only morning conversation is apologies to the occupant.
Even though the contract between Providence and the HSA says the former will provide shelter until 7 a.m., it’s a little after 6 a.m. and all 90 of us are back out on the street, rubbing sleep from our eyes, shivering in the dark dawn, and waiting for the Third Street T line. When the train comes, most of us board without paying and ride back toward the city center to get busy finding some breakfast and making preparations for where to stay tonight. I have four hours before I have to be at work.
Shucrita Jones, director of Providence, later tells me the shelter’s materials have to be cleaned up by 7 a.m. because the church is booked for other activities. “We turn the lights on at 6. The clients have at least until 6:10 to get up. We encourage everyone to be out of there by 6:15 so we can be clear of the building by 6:30,” she says. To her defense, she adds that the shelter monitors often let people in earlier than the contracted time of 10 p.m. and that when the weather is particularly nasty she’ll open the doors as early as 8:30 p.m. to let people in out of the cold.
As for the discrepancy between empty mats in the shelters and people going without beds, she blames the reservation system. “CHANGES has a lot of glitches,” she says. “It’s got a lot of errors the city and county [are] trying to fix.”
What I witness isn’t as bad as what I hear. In the shelters everyone has a horror story — some are about how they got there, others about what’s happened to them since they arrived. Nearly all include a questionable experience with staff — from witnessing bribes for special treatment to being threatened with denial of service for complaining. Their observations echo mine: the administration and certain high-level staffers exhibit genuine concern and an ability to help when you ask, but lower-tier workers aren’t as invested in providing good service.
Tracy tells me she sent her daughter to private school and considers herself a victim of the dot-bomb era and an illegal eviction that landed them at the Hamilton Family Center. “We were given one blanket. It was filthy. It had poo on it, and, I’m not kidding, there were even pubic hairs,” she says.
She describes the shelter’s intake process as similar to that of jail bookings she’s seen on television. Six days later she and her child were thrown out. No reason was given, though she’s convinced it’s because a staff member overheard her complaining about a recent incident involving another client sneaking in a gun. When she was told to leave immediately, she wasn’t informed that she had the right to appeal. So she and her daughter hastily gathered their things and hit the dark Tenderloin streets.
A grievance system exists for people who’ve been hit with denial of service, or DOS’d, the colloquial term for kicked out. But the process can take months. Shelter managers I spoke with don’t deny that stealing is rampant, favoritism exists, and complaints occur — the greatest number about staff and food.
General complaints are supposed to be handled within the shelter, though they may be copied to the city’s Shelter Monitoring Committee. The SMC submits quarterly reports to the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Newsom, and the public, which show regular instances of inconsistent and unsafe conditions, abusive treatment, and a lack of basic amenities like toilet paper, soap, and hot water.
Those reports prompted Sup. Tom Ammiano to sponsor legislation mandating standards of care for all city-funded shelters (see “Setting Standards,” 1/30/08). The new law would create baseline standards and streamline a complaint and enforcement process.
According to the HSA, many of these standards are already policies included in the contracts with the nonprofits that run the shelters, requirements such as “provide access to electricity for charging cell phones.”
During my stay at the Episcopal Sanctuary, I asked the shelter monitor on duty where I could plug in my cell phone and was told I couldn’t. When I asked why not, the only reply was that it’s against shelter policy. At Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, Cohen was told he could plug in but at his own risk — his unattended phone would probably be stolen.
I reviewed all of the contracts between the city and the nonprofit shelter providers, as well as the shelter training manual that’s given to staff. I was unable to find the same list of policies the HSA gave to the budget analyst. I asked HSA executive director Trent Rhorer how these policies have been communicated to the shelter staff, but he did not respond by press time.
While the ability to charge a cell phone seems relatively minor, its ramifications can be huge. The first time James Leonard met with his case manager at Next Door shelter, he knew exactly what he needed to get back on his feet: bus fare to get to and from three job interviews he’d already scheduled, a clothing voucher so he’d have something nice to wear when he got there, and a couple of dollars for the laundry facilities at the shelter. He also needed to charge his cell phone to confirm the interviews. He said he was denied all four things.
The standards of care, if passed, could improve access to those basic provisions, but some in the Mayor’s Office have balked at the estimated $1 million to $2 million price tag. The budget analyst’s final report is scheduled for release Feb. 14, in time for a Feb. 20 hearing at the Budget and Finance Committee.
Deborah Borne, medical director of the DPH’s Tom Waddell clinic, is a proponent of the standards from a public health perspective. “For me, I’m looking at decreased funding and how can I best affect the most population with what remains,” she said.
Dirty shelters can help spread disease outside their four walls, as clients leave every day to use municipal services like buses, libraries, trains, and restaurants, which we all enjoy. Borne says this is something that’s been tackled by other facilities that house large numbers of people and is long overdue in the shelters.
“You can argue about whether we should or shouldn’t have shelters, but there are no city, state, or federal regulations for them. There are tons of regulations for the army, for public schools and colleges, but we put people in shelters and there’s none,” she said. To her, San Francisco is on the cutting edge of care with this legislation. “I can’t wait until we do this on a state level,” she said.
Kayhan said he and the mayor support the spirit of the legislation and have no problems with most of the no-cost items, but the price tag for staffing, training, and enforcement is a concern. “I think when you’re looking at how much money you’re going to spend on homelessness overall,” he told us, “I would rather allocate additional resources to create another unit of housing for someone as opposed to enhancing the service model of the shelters.”
Every day he’s on duty in the Tenderloin, police captain Gary Jimenez comes across homeless people — or people who seem homeless but aren’t.
“One day on Turk Street, I came by a long line of people drinking. I was walking with a Homeless Outreach Team officer, and he said he knew them all. Only about 20 percent of them were actually homeless. They don’t want to sit in their rooms drinking. We give people housing but we don’t acclimatize them, get them used to being inside. They want to do what they’ve been doing, and they go out on the streets to do it. It’s social,” he said.
Larry Haynes agrees. “It’s lonely and depressing in your room,” he says. He lost his Beulah Street apartment through an Ellis Act eviction and has been living in the Vincent Hotel for three years, after a nine-month stint in the shelter system. He’s a tenant representative now, advocating for improved conditions in the SROs, which still beat the shelters.
“The criticism I hear from people on the streets is that there are some good shelters but you can’t get in them,” Jimenez said. “Then there are shelters that are open that you can go to, but you wouldn’t want to because they’re really bad.”
He tells me he’s visited shelters but finds it difficult to get a feel for how valid the complaints are. “I can’t tell without waking up there or knowing what it’s like to be thrown out on the street at 6 a.m. in the cold when there’s nothing open,” he said.
The Shelter Monitoring Committee has requested that HSA staff stay in shelters at least once to get firsthand experience, but it’s yet to receive confirmation that this has occurred. When we asked Rhorer about the policy, he said, “There are 1,800 employees who work for HSA, so there is no way of knowing if any of them have been homeless and used the shelter system.”
In our first conversation, Kayhan told me he had never stayed in a shelter. In a later interview, when I asked what he thought about the public perception of the shelters, he said, “I’m just not sure that the criticism that I hear around the shelters as being dangerous hellholes — or whatever has been said — matches what I see in the shelters or what I read with respect to incident reports or what I hear at the Shelter Monitoring Committee or at the shelter directors’ meetings. So perception is reality.”
“Housing first” has been Mayor Newsom’s modus operandi for handling homelessness, and it’s a good one — the idea being to stabilize people, whatever condition they’re in: drunk or sober, clean or using, ill or able, young or old, alone or with family.
The city’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, released in 2004, recommended 3,000 units of supportive housing to get the chronically homeless off the streets. Kayhan confirms the Mayor’s Office of Housing is on track to meet that goal through master-leasing SROs and building or renovating new affordable units, where occupants will get supportive services.
The chronically homeless, a catchall term for folks who stick to the streets and don’t or aren’t able to use the system, have been the mayor’s target and Kayhan’s priority. This makes sense because they’re the most visible face of homelessness.
Last year’s city budget allowed a tripling of staff for the Homeless Outreach Team, which works diligently to move the most entrenched homeless off SoMa side streets and out of encampments in Golden Gate Park. A special allocation of shelter beds was set aside for them, and those who refused shelter were put directly into stabilization units in SROs, bypassing the shelter system entirely.
For some, this has been great. It’s how Leonard finally started to make some progress. He bailed on the shelters after having his possessions thrown out three times by staff and hit the streets, where HOT found him, deemed him “shelter challenged,” and moved him into a stabilization unit.
“I feel almost as good today as the day before I became homeless,” he tells me one afternoon in January. The Bay Area native is hoping to transition into a subsidized rental soon.
Twenty-five percent of shelter staff are required to be homeless or formerly homeless. Some shelters hire up to 80 percent. Tyler is one of them — he lives at MSC South but works for Episcopal Community Services, which runs Sanctuary, Next Door, and the Interfaith Emergency Winter Shelter Program. He shows me his pay stub to prove it, and I note that every two weeks he takes home more than I do. “Yeah, I make good money,” he agrees.
He’s been looking for an apartment, but rents are high and he hasn’t found anything good. A plan to move in with a family member fell through, so he’s just hanging out on the housing wait list. “What I really want to do is see what they’re going to do for me. I’ve been on [Personal Assistance Employment Services] for six months. Where is my SRO if I can afford to pay for it? So obviously that shit doesn’t work,” he says.
He’s bitter about the effect the Golden Gate Park sweeps have had on the SRO stock. “They got SROs right away,” he said of the 200-plus people who were removed from the park by HOT, put into stabilization beds, and transitioned to SROs. “They took them right away ’cause Gavin had to clean that shit up,” he says.
Tyler, like many people I spoke with, keeps as sharp an eye as possible on City Hall. They read the papers and have opinions informed by firsthand experience about programs like Care Not Cash. They know Kayhan is making $169,000 per year and they’re making $29 every two weeks.
One morning, coming out of the bathroom at Sanctuary, I stop to study a posting for affordable housing on a bulletin board. It’s a studio for $863 per month, more than I pay for my one-room Mission flat. The longer I stay in the shelters and the more people I talk to, the less secure I feel in my economic stability.
Ruby Windspirit has been homeless since Jan. 14, two days before I started my tour of the shelters. The 59-year-old Irish Navajo was attending school in Portland, Ore., studying photography and science, when she became ill with bone cancer. She came to San Francisco to convalesce closer to her daughter, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Castro with three other people.
Windspirit knew she couldn’t stay on the couch for too long and made a reservation for a $27 per night hotel in the Tenderloin. Despite the reservation, she couldn’t get in for two days and the bed she was ultimately given was two box springs with a piece of plywood for support. The sheets were dirty. She left after two weeks and entered the shelter system. She says Next Door is “150 percent better” than the hotel. She has a bed off the floor and the extra blanket her doctor recommended, though she was scolded for trying to plug in her phone.
I try to imagine what people like Windspirit would do if there weren’t shelters. But the Ten Year Council also recommended a phasing out of shelters within four to six years, to be replaced by 24-hour crisis clinics and sobering centers.
There are 364 fewer shelter beds in San Francisco than when Newsom became mayor. This year more may go. The city is currently requesting proposals to develop 150 Otis, which serves as a temporary shelter and storage space for homeless people, into permanent supportive housing for very-low-income seniors. About 60 shelter beds will be lost.
The HSA confirmed there are currently no plans to open any more shelters in San Francisco. The last plan for a new shelter — St. Boniface — fell through, and the money that was set aside for the project still languishes in an HSA bank account. Midyear budget cuts proposed by the mayor put that money on the chopping block.
Buster’s Place is also on the list of cuts. By April 15, the only place where someone can get out of the elements at any time, day or night, could be closed for good.
Kayhan, who previously oversaw Project Homeless Connect, Newsom’s private-sector approach to the problem, agreed that shelters will always be needed. What he worries about are the people who become dependant on them and refuse housing offers, although he’s also thinking about ways that shelters could be more amenable.
“I’d like to look at the next step with Homeless Connect to try and institutionalize that in the way we do business specifically in the shelters,” he said, imagining a shelter pilot of one-stop shopping for services.
But just three weeks into his new job Kayhan was reaching out to constituents to try to figure out what isn’t working. He told us, “What I’m trying to do since I came into this position is be on the street and measure the impact the system is having on those that are on the street day in and day out and try to see what part of the system isn’t working properly or needs to be resourced differently so that we don’t see homeless people, long term, on the streets.”
One night at MSC, in the bathroom before bed, a young woman tells me her story while I brush my teeth and she washes off her makeup. Not too long ago she drove here from Florida to meet up with her boyfriend. They were hanging out on the street one night when a cop came by, cited him for an open container, and discovered he had a warrant. Now he’s in jail in San Rafael.
She started sleeping in her Suburban while she looked for job and a place to stay. One night while she slept, parked at Castro and Market, she was hit by a drunk driver. She lifts a hank of long blond hair and shows me a bright pink tear of stitches above her temple. An ambulance took her and the drunk to the hospital. Her totaled car was towed. When the hospital found out she had no place to go, it sent her here.
“Now I’m in a fucking homeless shelter,” she says, genuinely aghast at the situation and truly lost about what to do. She has her bed for five more days.
She could get a job. She says, “I have hella references,” from working in restaurants for years. She could sleep in one of her friends’ cars, but it seems like so much work: waking up in the car, going to a resource center or shelter to wash up, then going to work.
We joke about living in the shelter. “Yeah, you can come over,” she imagines telling her friends. “Dinner’s at 4:30.”
“You’ve got to leave by 10,” I say.
“It’ll be fun. We can hang out and smoke on the patio,” she says.
I don’t know what else to say, except “Good luck.” I know what it’s like to chase a boyfriend to San Francisco. I remember sleeping in my car when I was 21, during a strange time between graduating from college and getting a place to live for the summer in a town where housing was tight. I think about my little sister, packing up her Subaru one day and taking off to Miami, where she didn’t know a soul. You have a little money, a lot of hope, and that youthful sense of invincibility, but sometimes it all comes down to luck.
I bid her good night, pack up my toiletries, and wipe my face with my shelter-issued towel. It smells vaguely of bleach and shit.
Bryan Cohen contributed to this report.