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Give Us Shelter: ‘Cause We Ain’t Gonna Fade Away

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“I started out at 6:00 in the morning trying to get a bed. I slept outside the center, so to get in early, so I guess you could say I started even earlier. Literally 16 hours later, I finally got a bed at South. I trucked all the way down, there and they put me out, saying they don’t have a bed for me. I guess the reservation somehow got dropped.”

In 2007, the Coalition on Homelessness released a report entitled Shelter Shock (1.4 MB PDF). The report outlined human rights abuses in San Francisco City-funded shelters, as well as uncovered a lack of basic health and hygiene in those same places. We went on to create, in conjunction with the Shelter Monitoring Committee, legislation that created standards in San Francisco shelters—standards that are coded and enforceable. We are now embarking on our next stage in our journey: shelter reservation reform.

In our various conversations with folks, people would complain about this onerous system that required dozens of hours of waiting, only to find no shelter at the end of the day. Sadly, the City then would report empty shelter beds on the same night we were seeing uncountable numbers of people turned away from shelters. Further research has found that many of those so-called vacancies are actually not available, whereas others actually are. Some are reserved for separate organizations, others require an onerous system to access, while others still go unreported by uninspired and underpaid staff and thus remain unavailable those requesting beds. This is an issue that has infuriated shelter seekers to no end.

We went out and surveyed 212 such people. We asked folks who were actively seeking shelter some very basic questions. We mostly interviewed people at shelter reservation sites, but also hit some shelters and streets as well. The results are in some ways staggering.

For example, on average shelter seekers were turned away six times seeking shelter in the month previous to being surveyed. Worse still, it took on average 147 hours to secure a bed for desperate shelter-seekers.

Interestingly enough, when Coalition Director Jennifer Friedenbach brought this issue up at a Human Services commission in January, Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer vigorously denied that shelter turn-aways happened, and quoted, once again, that there were vacancies each night in single adult shelters. Apparently, he lives in a parallel universe that denies the experience of countless homeless people and folks working on the front lines making the shelters reservations. They can tell you they spend the better part of each day doing just that: either getting denied shelter or denying shelter beds to their clients.

In fact, on three separate occasions last fall the Shelter Monitoring Committee’s staff person sat in three separate drop-in centers recording turn-aways. She found—and the reports are available on-line—that two in three people seeking shelter were in fact turned away. You should have heard the bureaucracy scream: These were snapshots! They couldn’t be taken as reliable information! (Of course they don’t say this when they release their one-time homeless count numbers.)

We all know the data was a snapshot. Or, really, three snapshots, which makes for the beginning of a pattern. This pattern grows as our own surveys seem to be pointing very prominently in the same direction: The most common complaint about the shelter reservation process was that there were no beds available (29%), with another common complaint being the long wait for a bed (21%). Folks also complained about staff pretty vigorously, with 23% of interviewees registering complaints about staff.

For all the work that people put into getting a bed, they did not get much out of it: 33% got seven-night stays, and another third got only a one-night stay, only to have to repeat the crazy scrimmage for a place to lay their head next. For the thankful 13%, they received three-month stays, with the remaining 22% getting six-month stays (a length of stay which the City is proposing to eliminate).

When the City changed the shelter reservation process, bringing in the CHANGES system, which finger-imaged homeless people and cost over a million dollars, it ceased tracking shelter turn-aways. Ever since then, bureaucrats have been vigorously denying that anyone gets turned away from shelters, in spite of the fact that their own numbers show five homeless people to every shelter bed. The political reasoning is simple: If you convince the public that homeless people don’t want help, the logical jump is to blame homeless people for their dire conditions. This gives the City the much-needed political cover when it calls in the police to “crack down on vagrants.”

Homeless people have a lot of solutions, but the bottom line seems to be a fair equitable system that also accommodates people with special needs. People also believe that the beds at the resource centers should be increased. Many homeless people believe there should be increased staff training throughout the system. Many also report that the expensive computer reservation system needs to be repaired. They also report a need to increase the total number of shelters beds and improve shelter conditions.

We have come a long way in our journey to reform San Francisco’s shelter system but we have not yet reached the summit. If you would like to join our struggle, please come to our workgroup meetings, which occur every Wednesday at 12:30 here at 468 Turk.

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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