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Easy as 1, 2, 3?: Recommendations to Improve Shelter Access Hit a Brick Wall

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San Francisco’s Department of Human Services has a brochure explaining (or applauding) the CHANGES system, a brochure whose cover reads: How to Get Shelter in San Francisco for single adults—it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

This could hardly be farther from the truth. There is a serious crisis within the shelter system. Outside of 150 Otis, men sit all night, curled into tiny brick crevices, hoping that maybe, at some point, they will be able to at least sleep in a chair inside. Countless others around the city are unable to access shelters either. However, every night, there are numerous shelter beds that remain empty.

To enroll in CHANGES (an ironic acronym for Coordinated Homeless Assessment of Needs through Guidance and Effective Service), people who are seeking shelter simply go to a neighborhood resource center, get fingerprinted, and provide their personal information to be placed in the computer reservation system. They can then make their shelter reservations, “from 8 AM throughout the day until spaces are filled.” There are, by official numbers, about 3,800 single adults who are homeless in San Francisco. There are only about 1,300 shelter beds. Enrolling may be simple; actually finding a shelter bed is not. The least that the City could do is ensure that its policies regarding shelter reservations make the beds that are available accessible.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee has been attempting to address this crisis in the shelter system for months. They collaborated with the Local Homelessness Coordinating Board on Shelter Enrichment and submitted a report to the Mayor’s Office on May 12. This report contained clear, concrete, and easily realizable recommendations that would make shelters more accessible:

  • Analyze the Care Not Cash programs (see this story)
  • Track what types of sleeping units are vacant each night
  • Increase the number of sleeping units that the resource centers have access to for reservations
  • Track all turn-aways each day and night at the resource centers and at the individual shelters
  • Make sleeping unit reservations possible on-site at shelters
  • Drop available sleeping units at an earlier time (see below)
  • Use the SF 311 free phone line as another way for someone to make a shelter reservation 24 hours a day

The Mayor’s response to this report completely ignored and overlooked these recommendations, further showing that he’s all for keeping up appearances, but that he really could not care less about actually addressing the problems. In his inaugural speech, Newsom declared that he would reform the City’s shelters. In the text of the Care Not Cash program, it states that part of the “Cash” taken away from those that are homeless would go towards providing “Care” such as the, “expansion of shelter capacity.” Since then, more shelters have closed and those that are open continue to host empty beds on a nightly basis—beds that are often made empty from the allocation of beds given only to “Care Not Cash” recipients.

This report also contained an agreement to conduct quarterly checks on turn-aways—situations in which people, “attempting to get reservations at any time… are unsuccessful based on the lack of sleeping units available in CHANGES.” Bernice Casey, Policy Analyst for the Shelter Monitoring Committee, conducted the first of these reviews on July 29, 2008 at Tenderloin Health (TLH). In this review, there were two different types of data collected: The first type reviews the success of people that sign up for a reservation before the CHANGES system even begins taking reservations for the day. Only 34 of these 74 people received a reservation, leaving 12 men, nine women, and 19 seniors or people with disabilities without a place to sleep for the night. On top of this, there were 90 people defined as turn-aways—50 men, 23 women, and 17 seniors or people with disabilities. Only one man from this group received a reservation, leaving 89 more people without a place to sleep for the night.

All in all, only 21% of people attempting to access shelters at TLH actually received reservations. To make matters worse, there were only 45 units open in the CHANGES system for the day—45 units for which all resource centers offering reservations compete. Other units only open up when staff at the various shelters make “bed drops,” meaning that staff enter empty beds at their shelters into the system, making them available to others. In some shelters, this data entry does not occur. One staff member at TLH used to call every shelter on a nightly basis to request that they please drop empty beds into the system. Even if there is an empty bed, it is not accessible unless it’s empty in the computer system. Because people cannot make on-site reservations, this policy directly links shelter access to data entry.

Ms. Casey continued to perform these reviews. At 150 Otis on September 16, only 34 of 90—or 38%—of clients accessed shelter. All of these reservations occurred after 8:00 p.m., with 50% of these occurring after 10:00 p.m., meaning that most of the clients would not be able to get eight hours of sleep. At Glide on October 4, a whopping 67% of clients received access to shelter—24 out of 36. However, most of these reservations were made very early in the morning. According to the report, one man came to Glide at 3:30 a.m. to make sure that he could access a shelter; he had gone without a bed for three days. There were 19 people lined up in front of the walk-in center before it even opened at 7:00 a.m.

By 7:06 a.m., the only available units were at Providence Shelter. Although one might say, “a shelter is a shelter,” this is not the case. Two men and one woman could not take the reservation because they could not afford to get to the shelter. Though people are supposed to receive tokens for transportation, none were given out. In addition, five men refused to sleep at Providence: Perhaps because residents must leave at 5:00 a.m.

In all reports, it became apparent that people with disabilities—those who should be receiving the highest level of care—in actuality received the least. At Glide, two wheelchair-bound men were not eligible for seven-day Providence shelter reservations. At Tenderloin Health, only 15% of seniors and people with disabilities who had actually accessed shelter were able to make seven-day reservations. The other 85% would have to wake up the next morning and wait in line again for a bed. In comparison, 100% of those at TLH who did not have disabilities received seven-day reservations. For those who cannot wait in line for a few hours in the morning, none receive seven-day reservations and the majority cannot access shelter at all.

It is blatantly obvious that the system as it stands does not work. On each report that the SMC submitted to the Mayor’s Office, the first item on the first page repeats the bulleted and italicized list of recommendations that have been in existence since May. No response has been given, and no recommendations have been acted upon. How much longer can the Mayor’s Office ignore a committee set up by the City specifically to provide recommendations to improve shelter conditions?

“At the end of the day, making San Francisco the healthiest city in America is our ultimate goal,” said Mayor Newsom in his inaugural speech. Yet money is wasted every night on empty beds, thousands must sleep outside, and a committee of dedicated people actually working to improve the health of the city must continuously provide recommendations to a brick wall.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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