Shelter shuffle - Page 3

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

In San Francisco's system, you're not supposed to just walk up to a homeless shelter and get a bed, but that's what I do.

At first the woman behind the counter at MSC South tells me the only open beds are across town, at Ella Hill Hutch in the Western Addition. Then another staffer looks at the clock and says he's not sending me out there. He'll "drop" beds instead.

The city's 1,182 beds for single adults are managed through an electronic database called CHANGES. It's a modern-day improvement on people roaming from shelter to shelter everyday, putting their names on lists for possible beds. Launched in 2004, CHANGES now does that electronically and maintains profiles of people who use the system. If you've been kicked out of a shelter, missed your tuberculosis test, or not shown up for curfew, CHANGES knows and tells on you.

Every day around 8 p.m. shelter staff trawl through the reservations and drop the no-shows, cancellations, and reservations that have expired or whose makers have moved on to hospitals, rehab, the morgue, or — less frequently — housing.

MSC is allowed to make reservations for any shelter except itself — that's against policy. I learn this the next morning, and I'm told it's because there's too much corruption and favoritism. MSC is apparently one of the better shelters, so to keep clients from cutting deals with staff, the policy doesn't allow clients to reserve a bed there.

But after half an hour the staffer hooks me up for a two-night stay, bending the rules to do so. While I'm waiting, he turns away a client who had a seven-day bed but didn't show up the previous night. The guard confiscates his fifth of vodka, and he gets an earful about drinking.

When the city's shelter system was born in 1982, it was first come, first serve at the doors of churches and community centers. President Ronald Reagan's cuts to federal domestic spending landed hard on low-income people, so then-mayor Dianne Feinstein called on local organizations to temporarily house and feed the growing number of street sleepers.

Throughout the '80s wages stagnated while the cost of living soared: between 1978 and 1988 the average rent for a studio apartment in San Francisco jumped 183 percent — from $159 a month to $450. Twenty years later it's $1,114. In 1978 the Housing and Urban Development budget was $83 billion. Today it's $35.2 billion, almost nothing by federal budgetary standards, and almost no new public housing units have been built since 1996, while 100,000 have been lost.

Every year the federal government spends almost twice as much on a single attack submarine as the Department of Housing and Urban Development spends on homeless assistance. State and local governments have been left to pick up the hefty price tag.

San Francisco spends more than $200 million on homelessness, through services, financial aid, supportive housing, emergency care, and shelter beds. There are 13 city-funded shelters, four resource centers, and three reservation stations in San Francisco. The Human Services Agency spends $12.5 million per year on shelters through contracts with nonprofit managers. The Department of Public Health also manages two contracts, for a battered women's shelter and a 24-hour drop-in center.

But it's not enough: the nonprofits supplement operating expenses with grants and private donations and recently relied on a special allocation of $300,000 to purchase basic supplies like soap, towels, hand sanitizer, sheets, pillows, and blankets.

James Woods, a spry 51-year-old wearing a red Gap parka barely zipped over his thin, scarred chest, rattles off the places he's lived: Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, Louisville, Ky., and his hometown, Nashville, Tenn.