Shelter shuffle - Page 2

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

"I can walk around in my underwear," he says.

We sit on the stairs, talking about how you lose all your privacy when you stay in a shelter, how the regimentation is reminiscent of prison. There are no places to go and be on your own, rest, and be quiet. Once you're in for the night, you can't leave except to step out for a smoke.

I ask if he has a job. He tells me he's a chef for Google. I raise an eyebrow, recalling that the company's stock is hovering somewhere between $600 and $700 per share right now. The pay isn't the problem — he gets $16 an hour, but he's been out of town for a while, caring for a sick family member, and has just returned. He got his job back, but only part-time, and he lost his home.

He's wary of being on welfare — that's not the way his mother raised him — but he's in the County Adult Assistance Program, which gets him $29 every two weeks, a guaranteed bed at the shelter, and a spot on a waiting list for a single-room-occupancy hotel room, the bottom rung on the permanent-housing ladder.

What he really wants is a studio, but his searches haven't turned up anything affordable. He needs a little boost of cash for a security deposit on an apartment, but when he asked the General Assistance Office if it could help him out with that, the answer was no.

His brow furrows with concern, and then the conversation turns to me. "You got a job?" he asks.

What can I say? I'm a reporter for a local newspaper. I've heard that some of the city's homeless shelters are lacking basic standards, accessing a bed can be complicated, and services are scattered. I thought I'd come find out for myself.

Here's what I learned: San Francisco has a cumbersome crazy quilt of programs, stitched together with waiting lists and lines. Policies that are written on paper and espoused in City Hall are often missing in shelters. Some rules don't seem to exist until they've been broken. Others apply to some people, but not all. Getting a bed is a major hurdle, and I say that as a stable, able, mentally competent, sober adult.

And once you're in, it's sort of like sitting in a McDonald's for too long. Years ago a friend told me the interiors of fast food restaurants are deliberately designed to make you feel a little uncomfortable. They don't want you to get too cozy; they want you to eat and leave, making way for the next hungry mouth they can feed.

In other words, shelters are designed to make people not want to use them.

The only information I took with me was a one-page handout I got from a San Francisco Police Department Operation Outreach officer. He said it's what cops and outreach workers give to people they come across who are sleeping on the streets. I figure if it's good enough for them, it's all I need to navigate the system.

The map, as it were, is a cramped, double-sided list of places to get free meals, take showers, store your stuff, sober up, and, of course, get a bed.

For the bed, it instructs, you have to go to a resource center and make a reservation. Some of the resource centers are also shelters. Some aren't. Some are just reservation stations. They all have different operating hours and are located all over the city, but mostly in the Tenderloin and South of Market.

It takes me a while to puzzle out which ones are open, where exactly they are, then which is closest to me. Phone numbers are also listed, so I assume it's like making a hotel reservation and dial one up on my cell phone.

The first number doesn't work. There's a digit missing. Dialing methodically down the list, I discover that none of the numbers connect me to a person. This is obviously not the way to go.

The way I ultimately get into a shelter is not the way you're supposed to.