The Runaround: Report on Hurdles to Shelter Access
Anybody who is homeless in San Francisco and trying to reserve a bed in city-funded shelters is likely to be turned away an average of six times within a month. Chances are they’re just as likely to wait one day as well as over a week to get a bed. And they also believe the shelter system could be improved by fixing the reservation system, improving staff training, and creating more beds.
These were just some of the findings in a study of shelter seekers the Coalition on Homelessness released in June. The survey of over 200 homeless city residents included in The Runaround also revealed that they had an even-money chance of having favorable or unfavorable experiences finding a haven in the shelter system.
When asked how many times they were unsuccessful in attempts to access shelter during the fall of 2008, 122 of the 212 surveyed said they experienced a total of 1,059 turn-aways, an average of 6.05 times per person.
“While the City claims to have 100 empty beds a night in the shelter, two out of three people seeking shelter are being turned away due to lack of availability or to bureaucratic hurdles that result in empty beds not being made available until close to the middle of the night,” said Coalition Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach.
The city also observed shelter turn-aways as a common phenomenon: The Shelter Monitoring Committee found on three separate occasions a total of 197 of 290 shelter hopefuls—about two-thirds—were unable to get shelter reservations through the CHANGES database, reputed to be prone to glitches.
Surveys were administered at numerous sites, including shelter reservations locations, shelters, and on the streets. People were approached and asked to participate by Coalition volunteers, most of whom themselves have experienced homelessness.
Of the respondents, 89—roughly 45 percent—said their experiences looking for shelter were positive, while 86 found them negative. The top reasons explaining their reactions were similar and ranked accordingly: Those who had a favorable experience most frequently cited getting a bed, dealing with great shelter staff, and a experiencing a smooth process of reserving a bed as the primary reasons for their positive rating. By the same token, unsatisfied would-be shelter guests found the lack of beds, bad staff, and long waiting times as the main factors behind their negative reviews.
The Coalition also noted the time between arriving at a shelter and securing a reservation often varies. Thirteen percent get temporarily housed after three to eight hours, 12 percent within one day and another 12 percent get their bed after eight days or more—assuming CHANGES doesn’t drop the reservation by check-in time.
With last year’s closures of the Buster’s Place drop-in center and Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, and the reduction of hours at Tenderloin Health, the process of getting sheltered now requires longer waiting times outside a shelter or resource center. Homeless people — especially those requiring case management or receiving public benefits — are finding a greater scarcity of space and services. Effective July 1, they must expect even leaner, meaner times, thanks to a 25 percent funding reduction in all city departments.
But the homeless people surveyed suggested ways of making the situation more bearable: Better staff training topped the list at 13 percent, followed by fixing the CHANGES system at 12 percent and increasing the availability of shelter beds at 11 percent.
Their input also informed the 2007 Shelter Shock study, where reports of shabby conditions and unprofessional conduct by shelter staff were well documented. That report paved the way for establishing the shelter standards of care law enacted last year.
PDF copies of The Runaround and Shelter Shock may be downloaded from the Coalition on Homelessness' Web site, http://www.cohsf.org