Shelter residents pass baton, ask Supervisors to end runaround
originally published in Street Sheet, Oct. 1-14, 2009
The baton has been passed to the Board of Supervisors — in alleviating the shelter access problems of San Francisco ’s homeless residents.
Over 30 representatives from the Coalition on Homelessness “relayed” their concerns to the board’s Rules Committee on Sept. 17. They wore faux athletic gear to symbolize the “runaround” they’re given when looking for shelter. Earlier that day, they rallied outside City Hall and visited Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office.
Supervisor Chris Daly requested an item on the agenda to review “The Runaround,” a report based on over 200 homeless people’s experiences navigating a maze of a reservation system just to get a bed. And scouting for shelter has been made more challenging by changes in the system.
The report, released in June, and a follow-up in August showed brief shelter stays and dropped reservations continue to be the norm — as well as countless hours of waiting wasted in the attempt.
That happened to Rebecca Nichols, who lost her bed in the middle of a seven-night stay because of a computer error. She spent the next eight days searching for another place to lay her head.
“When you get your bed cut, you have to start over, because it’s a full-time job to get a 4x8 spot,” Nichols told the committee during public comment.
Negative experiences in attempting shelter access outweigh the positive, according to the report. Not surprisingly, respondents’ attitudes depended on their success in getting a bed ("The Runaround: Report on hurdles to shelter access," May 2009). The Coalition found over half of the shelter seekers interviewed in August found the process “difficult.”
Michael Decarlo Wright referred to a poster-sized aerial photo to illustrate the distances homeless people must travel to make a reservation. He pointed to two spots where resource centers closed in July. One of them was the 24-hour reservation center at 150 Otis St., one and a half miles away from the new one at MSC-South.
“You’re standing in line sometimes four or five in the morning,” Wright said. “They don’t have openings, then the openings they do have are at Providence . Providence is on the other side of the city.”
Shelter Monitoring Committee member Elihu Hernandez also pointed to the photo, adding that the hilly terrain makes travel almost impossible for those with mobility problems. Requesting a bus token from a case manager adds a bureaucratic hurdle, he said. “It’s difficult to find one and say, ‘Hey, I got a reservation and I need to get to the other side of the city before I miss my check-in,’” he said.
“Please stop the runaround,” Hernandez said. “We need the rest.”
Another problem addressed was treatment by staff. “They’re not taking into consideration the pain I’m going though,” LaTonia Davis said. She worked at Wells Fargo before losing her house. She told them her previous history “as a contributing member of society” meant nothing to shelter employees.
“I’m treated as a second-class homeless person and talked to as a person with no dignity, no feelings, just like a dog,” she said.
Coalition executive director Jennifer Friedenbach credited the city for shortening reservation wait times. Since July, the average decreased from seven days to three.
“There was a really large reduction in wait, but it is still too long,” Friedenbach said.
Fixing the computer reservation system is one of the Coalition’s 20 recommendations to make getting into a shelter easier. Also suggested were increasing minimum stays to six weeks, adjusting the proportion of beds allotted to Care Not Cash recipients and allowing clients at a shelter for fewer than 21 days the right to a grievance procedure.
Coalition volunteer L.J. Cirillo, who passed the baton to the committee, advised them to follow the recommendations. She said, “It’s going to give people the time they need to get their lives back together.”
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