A mad, mock dash for shelter: Racing The Amazing Runaround
originally published in Street Sheet, Feb. 15-28, 2010
About 40 people ran an obstacle course through Tenderloin streets on Jan. 29 to illustrate the runaround homeless people in San Francisco experience when looking for space in a homeless shelter.
"I've seen people go through struggles day to day to day just to get a bed," said Ned Howey, who was first to cross the finish line at The Amazing Runaround.
The sole member of his team and clad in an orange track suit and a long, red-haired wig, Howey beat seven other teams, including representatives from Hospitality House, the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and the League of Pissed Off Voters.
The race, a fundraiser for the Coalition on Homelessness, was modeled after "The Amazing Race." As in the CBS reality show, contestants play games of chance and answer trivia questions while running from site to site -- mostly shelters and resource centers in an approximately 20-block area. This simulation is a heightened version of homeless people's perpetual pusuit of a temporary bed.
Some of the challenges included getting a TB test and building a makeshift tent while avoiding being ticketed by police.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is such a degrading experience people have to do every day,'" said Howey, who until last year worked as a contract evaluator at the Tenderloin Health drop-in center.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the Housing Rights Committee's tenant counseling program, also found dashing from one place to another demonstrated real-life stuggles of people without housing.
"I thought it was a great duplication of the system homeless people have to go through," Mecca said.
The rules of the game were borrowed from "The Amazing Race," as well as those enforced at shelters. Contestants were prohibited from using cell phones, Internet and GPS in finding their destinations. Also forbidden were food and drinks, weapons and intoxicants.
Howey was also the competition's top fundraiser, bringing in almost half of the $1,200 take.
The race lasted only a couple of hours, but negotiating the public shelter system, the Coalition asserts, is an ongoing endurance test. Since 2004, the city has lost 464 sleeping spaces after the closure of three emergency shelters and might eliminate as many as 84 additional beds this year, according to "The Runaround," a report the Coalition issued last year.
The report also said losing shelter reservations and long waits for available beds were par for the course. The Coalition's findings were supported by the city-sponsored Shelter Monitoring Committee, which determined in 2008 that two-thirds of would-be shelter guests at three shelters were turned away.
Real-life attempts to access shelter is already challenging for able-bodied people, said Coalition executive director Jennifer Friedenbach, but disabled people are faced with additional hurdles.
"People who find it difficult to stand in line for long periods of time may be unable, and for those with a psychiatric disablility it's even more difficult," Friedenbach said. She added that disabled people are disqualified for beds reserved to Care Not Cash recipients, regardless of whether or not those beds are used.
Among several recommendations, the Coalition urges for moving more beds to shelter reservation sites, where only one-third of beds are currently available in the shelter system.
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