Shelter shuffle - Page 4

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

"Out of all the cities I've been in, this is the only city where you have to go and make a reservation for a bed at the rescue mission all the way across the city in order to come back to the place you started," he says, jabbing the floor of MSC with his cane. "I can't even make a reservation here for a bed here. They'll send me across the city to another place to do that."

Woods has been pounding the pavement between MSC and the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center for eight months. Every day around 3:30 p.m. he heads to the Tenderloin, where he gets in line for a bed. Woods has a fractured hip and arthritis, pins in his knees and feet, and hepatitis C. He's been HIV-positive since 2002. He walks with a limp that can transform into a springy, stiff-legged canter when he chases the 27 bus down Fifth Street.

Rather than tote all of his possessions with him, he hides them in the drawer of an emergency bed at MSC, so it's imperative that he get back there every night. Sometimes he waits hours for an MSC bed to open up.

Though Woods speaks highly of some city services, swooning a little when he mentions his doctor at the Tom Waddell Health Center, the daily bed hunt has left him exhausted and disgusted with the city. "They've got the program designed to run the homeless off," he says. "They have it as hard and difficult as possible for you to take a breath, take a rest, get a routine."

While a person can reserve a bed for one to seven nights and, if on General Assistance, make arrangements through a caseworker for 30- to 90-day stays, Woods has rarely been able to procure a bed for longer than one night. "Maybe twice I've gotten a seven-day bed," he says.

The inability to connect people with beds is not lost on city officials. Mayor Gavin Newsom's recently hired homeless policy director, Dariush Kayhan, told me, "I really want to solve the issue of the juxtaposition of vacant beds and homeless people on the streets. That to me is untenable."

However, he only discussed the issue in terms of people who've chosen not to use the shelters and are sleeping in the street. To him, empty beds signify that there's more than enough shelter for people. "At this time there's no plan to expand any shelter beds, and I think homeless people, in many ways, many of them vote with their feet and have decided that shelter's not for them," he said.

But the Guardian found that even if you are willing and waiting for a bed in a place where someone can presumably connect you with one, it often doesn't happen.

According to the 2007 Homeless Count, there are 6,377 homeless people in San Francisco. The nine year-round single-adult shelters have enough beds to accommodate one-third of that population. Other emergency facilities shelter some of the overflow on a seasonal basis. The remaining homeless sleep in jails and hospitals, respite and sobering centers, parks and sidewalks.

People also pile up at Buster's Place, the only 24-hour drop-in resource center in the city, where they slump all night in chairs, forbidden by staff to sleep on the floor.

It took Guardian writer Bryan Cohen five nights to find a spot at a shelter. He spent Jan. 20 and 21 at Buster's waiting to see if a bed would open up. None did. According to the shelter vacancy report for those two nights, there were 108 and 164 beds set aside for men that went unfilled. On an average night this January, a month marked by cold weather and flooding rain, 196 beds were empty.

Buster's does not have access to CHANGES but can apparently call shelters and ask about empty beds. I was at the Providence Foundation shelter one night and overheard a call come through and shelter staff tell whoever rang that no, they couldn't bring more people here.