Shelter system crash fails homeless clients
The CHANGES shelter reservation system failed no fewer than four times in the last two weeks, the Coalition on Homelessness has learned.
Confusion reigned when the computerized intake for homeless people seeking beds in the city's public shelters first went offline the weekend of June 27, restarted, then crashed again on June 29. An unidentified staffer at the 150 Otis St. resource center -- one of five in the city where beds can be reserved -- said staff issued numbered tickets for one-night reservations and worked from a paper copy while tech support was called.
A Human Services Agency (HSA) memo issued on Sept. 18, 2007 listed specific protocols in such an emergency: Resource centers booking shelter beds must track check-ins and vacancies manually when the system is down and inform shelter-seekers to return when beds are available.
When Briana Moore, who oversees single adult shelters for the HSA, addressed the Shelter Monitoring Committee at a July 1 meeting on the outage, she was reported to have said, “What can I say? It's a computer system.”
Since the HSA instituted CHANGES at a cost of $1 million in 2004, the homeless community and its advocates have deemed the system an error-prone one that loses reservations and inaccurately reports fully booked shelters and vacancies.
Since the outage, frontline staff at the resource centers admitted the system was slow in retrieving or downloading clients' information.
While 150 Otis staff might have known what procedure to follow, workers at other centers apparently were unaware of any backup plans. Staff at the Glide Walk-in Center and the United Council for Human Services said they didn't know what to do aside from the standard troubleshooting and waiting for HSA to bring the system online.
When the system does go out, the centers can only issue one-night reservations even if clients are already approved for seven nights. However, staff at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center said they honored extensions up to seven nights.
The protocols in the 2007 HSA memo haven't been updated yet, Moore said in a phone interview.
The system failure is just an added obstacle in the changing landscape for unhoused people, whose status already puts them in crisis mode. Budget shortfalls in the city budget forced the resource centers at Tenderloin Health and Central City Self Help to close on July 1. The five remaining centers are far-flung and operate at varying hours. Two of them – Glide and Mission -- are unavailable on weekends.
Even when CHANGES is operational, homeless people are daunted by it. For starters, people registering in CHANGES must provide sensitive, personal information and be photographed and fingerprinted. But they also face other barriers, which the Coalition examined in their recent study “The Runaround.” The recurrence of lost beds reserved earlier was reported – homeless people surveyed last year said they were turned away from shelters an average of six times per month. Inadequacies with bed availability and the reservation system were found as significant causes of dissatisfaction with city shelters.
A resource center staff member cited in the report said that luck plays a large role in who gets sheltered. “It's now a system-wide lottery and the beds often go to people who wait in line the longest,” the employee said.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Parkinson.