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Imagine a World, or at least a City, without Lines

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When it comes to the shelter reservation system in San Francisco, this might seem like an impossible dream, more delusion than imagination. However, for the past several months, that’s exactly what the Shelter Access Workgroup, SAW, has been doing.

The Problem

San Francisco’s current shelter reservation system is an unmitigated disaster. It is complicated, inefficient and inconsistent. After waiting in lines for hours – or possibly days – homeless people are regularly turned away despite the fact the city reports vacant beds each night. They line up at resource centers hours before the 7AM opening – many arriving the night before – to be first in line for a chance at a 90-day reservation. Very few actually get one. Their only choice, if they want a place to sleep that night, is to spend most of the remainder of the day waiting in still more lines for a chance at a one night bed.

Adding to the frustration, CHANGES, the Human Service Agency’s computer system that books reservations for all city funded shelters, is notoriously unreliable. It regularly drops reservations. It is not uncommon for a person to receive a reservation and less than an hour later be turned away by the shelter, reservation in hand,  because their bed has been given to someone else. It reports no vacancies when in fact there are then alternately overbooks beds when no vacancies exist. These are examples of what happens when the system is working. Often, no reservations can be made because CHANGES is down altogether.

Finding a Solution

In response to ongoing concerns about the conditions above, the Coalition on Homelessness attempted to analyze the failures within the reservation system and made numerous recommendations to improve ease of access for shelter clients.

Last spring, the Coalition urged Supervisor Jane Kim to call a hearing of the Rules Committee concerning shelter access. As a result of that hearing, she then called upon Bevan Dufty and the Mayor’s office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement, HOPE, to form a workgroup to re-imagine what shelter access in San Francisco should look like. That workgroup, consisting of representatives from city government, service providers, non-profit agencies, advocates for homeless people, medical and psychiatric professionals, information technology specialists and most importantly, members of the homeless community, will make the following recommendations aimed at improving performance in these critical areas:

Moving Beyond Lines

The City should increase access to the shelter reservation system

by continuing to allow individuals to get basic information about the shelter reservation process and make, check status of, and confirm reservations at resource centers.

by allowing individuals to get basic information about the shelter reservation process and make, check status of, and confirm reservations using 311, c) online, or d) while in the hospital, treatment program, or jail.

The City should centralize the reasonable accommodation form system so that it travels with the client regardless of shelter.

Instead of the current first come first serve system, the SAW workgroup is recommending a rolling waitlist.*** Individuals must check in weekly to stay on the waitlist. They can opt at that check in, or in the original sign up, to be included in one-night bed wait as well. For each 24- hour period, new additions to the waitlist will be randomized to eliminate the advantage of being first in line.

Stakeholders should have input in the implementation planning for the new system.

Any new system should not unfairly disadvantage people with disabilities.

The new system should allow individuals to opt out of certain shelters they do not want to stay in.


Transportation and Barriers

All clients should have a no-cost and ADA accessible way to get to their shelter reservation.

All clients should have access to no-cost and ADA accessible transportation throughout their shelter stay.

Clients should have access to no-cost MUNI and MAP Van shuttle services during their shelter stay.

The City should increase free storage available for homeless individuals.

The City should increase language access capacity during reservation process including access to ASL services.

Shelter Reservation Allocation

The City should expand shelter capacity by:

Creating medically and psychiatrically supportive shelter beds including hospice care and pain management

We should enhance the services and accommodations for seniors in all facilities, i.e., access to restrooms, cohort support groups, later sleep-in times, etc.

The City should not institute any new set-asides from the resource center allocation of beds.

The City should analyze use of current set-asides and move to re-allocate under utilized beds to resource centers. All set-asides should be re- examined every 6 months to ensure utilization.

This re-allocation should favor new set asides for seniors

*** The rolling waitlist will, like the current line based system, assign beds in the order that people sign up. However, unlike the current system, the person’s name will remain on the list, moving up each time a bed becomes available, without having to stand in line and restart the process each day. Once processed, clients will check in on a weekly basis in order to keep their place on the waitlist. They will be able to check their status and position on the list through various means – in person at resource centers, on posted lists at service providers such as St. Anthony’s or Glide, by phone, etc.


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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