Shelter shuffle - Page 5

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

There were four empty mats beside me.

Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, said CHANGES was a breakthrough in getting people into beds, but when it was first launched in 2004, things were different. "You had a choice. Shelter of choice was much easier to achieve. Then Care Not Cash happened," she said.

Most of the city's beds are assigned to beneficiaries of certain programs, like Swords to Ploughshares and Newsom's signature plan Care Not Cash, or to people with mental health or substance abuse issues who have case managers.

Though beds can be turned over to the general public when they are dropped after curfew, one wonders how effectively that happens.

The challenges are worst for Latinos, refugees, and immigrants, who face language barriers and the potential hurdle of illegality.

As a result, they flood one of the few places they can get in. Dolores Street Community Services reported the second-lowest vacancy rate in January, just 5 percent. The 82-bed program hosts a waiting list and is one of the more flexible in the city — deliberately so, as many of its Latino participants have jobs or work as day laborers. Marlon Mendieta, the executive program director, says, "They have a plan and just need to save up some money to move into a place."

However, rising rents have made moving on difficult. "We have people who are basically just cycling from one shelter to another," Mendieta said. "We see some who exit our shelter, find housing, but might end up back at the shelter if rent goes up or they lose work."

Providence is one of the sparest of homeless facilities and is located in a Bayview church. Unlike at other shelters, there's no hanging out here. When the doors open at 9:30 p.m. about 90 people with reservations are already lined up in the rain on its dark side street.

We receive one blanket apiece, and the men shuffle into the gym while I follow the other females into a smaller side room, where 12 mats are laid out on two ratty tarps. Several women immediately lie down, speechless.

The cook gives a quick blessing when plates of food arrive on two sheet pans: spaghetti, heavily dressed salad, limp green beans mixed with cooked iceberg lettuce, and a very buttery roll. It's all heavy and slightly greasy, but also warm and a closer approximation of a square meal than any of those offered by the other shelters I've stayed in so far.

Moments after I finish eating the lights are turned off, even though a couple of women are still working on their meals. A shelter monitor comes through and confiscates our cups of water, saying she just refinished the floors in here and doesn't want any spills. I notice that unlike at other shelters where I've stayed, none of the women here have bothered to change into pajamas. Some haven't even removed their shoes. I follow suit, tucking my jacket under my head for a pillow and pulling the blanket around me.

When the lights come back on at 5:45 a.m., I understand why no one changed: there's no time to get dressed. Shelter monitors enter the room, rousting sleepers with catcalls to get up and get moving. One turns on a radio, loud. They're brisk and no-nonsense, grabbing blankets and shoving them into garbage bags, pulling mats into a stack at the edge of the room.

A woman becomes perturbed by being hustled and talks back to the shelter monitor. A verbal battle ensues, with the client picking up her mat and throwing it across the room, scattering her possessions. "What a woman, what a woman," the shelter monitor yells. "We'll see if you get a bed here tonight."

Another staffer comes through with a toxic-smelling aerosol, which she sprays around us as we get ready to leave. The bathroom, the cleanest I've come across in the city's shelter system, is still a clusterfuck as a dozen women wait to use the three toilets and two sinks.