Shelter shuffle

Inside San Francisco's confounding system of housing the homeless
Photo by Charles Russo

EDITOR'S NOTE Guardian reporter Amanda Witherell and intern Bryan Cohen spent almost a week staying in various San Francisco homeless shelters. To get an unfiltered look at the conditions, they didn't identify themselves as journalists, so some names in this story have been changed to protect people's privacy. Their undercover reporting was supplemented with extensive research and on-the-record interviews with key officials, providers, and recipients of homeless services.

>>Read Amanda Witherell's nightly shelter journals, with photos

>>Read Bryan Cohen's nightly shelter journals, with photos

>>Homeless people share their stories

>>The mayor's Feb. 14 press conference about homeless shelters

It's about quarter past seven on a Thursday night, and I'm late for curfew. Not even during my wildest high school days did I have to be home by a certain time, but tonight, 29 years old and sleeping in a homeless shelter, I'm supposed to be in by 6:30 p.m.

Heading down Fifth Street toward the shelter, I wonder what I'll do if I lose my bed for being late. Can they set me up at a different shelter? Will I have to head back to a resource center in the Tenderloin or the Mission District to wait in line for a reservation somewhere else? Either way, I could be walking the streets for the next few hours, so I adjust my heavy backpack for the journey. Waiting to cross Bryant Street, I stare up at the large, hulking building with its utilitarian name, Multi-Service Center South, and notice there are no shades on the windows in the men's dorm. Since it's lit from within, I can clearly see someone standing beside his cot, clad in nothing but blue plaid boxers, obviously unaware that he's so exposed. I wonder if the windows would be shaded if it were the women's room. Maybe that's why we sleep in the basement.

Inside the door I shed my pack and step through the metal detector. The security guard dutifully pats it down and pushes it back into my arms. At the desk I give the last four digits of my Social Security number and am checked in. No questions about being tardy. I'm in.

I'm also late for dinner. A staffer hands me two unwrapped sandwiches from a reused bread bag under the counter. Ham, mustard, and American cheese between two pieces of cheap, sliced bread. After two days in the shelter I still haven't seen a piece of fruit or a vegetable. I wrap the sandwiches in the newspaper under my arm and head down to my bunk. On the stairs I pass a guy and nod hello. He nods back, then calls out, "Hey, can I ask you something?"

I turn. "Sure."

"What's a nice girl like you doing in here?"

I shrug and step back, unsure of what to say.

"I'm not trying to mess with you," he says. "I'm not fucking with you. I don't do drugs. I'm straight. I don't mess with anything," he goes on, trying to reassure me.

I believe him and dish it back. "Then what's a nice guy like you doing in here?"

He laughs and shrugs. He tells me he doesn't really stay here. It's just for a couple of days. He lives in a $200 per week hotel in Oakland, but if he stays there more than 28 consecutive days, it becomes residential and the rates go up, so he clears out for a few days every month and comes here. The hotel's nicer than this, he claims. It's clean and safe, and he has his own space.