Shelter shuffle - Page 8

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

They want to do what they've been doing, and they go out on the streets to do it. It's social," he said.

Larry Haynes agrees. "It's lonely and depressing in your room," he says. He lost his Beulah Street apartment through an Ellis Act eviction and has been living in the Vincent Hotel for three years, after a nine-month stint in the shelter system. He's a tenant representative now, advocating for improved conditions in the SROs, which still beat the shelters.

"The criticism I hear from people on the streets is that there are some good shelters but you can't get in them," Jimenez said. "Then there are shelters that are open that you can go to, but you wouldn't want to because they're really bad."

He tells me he's visited shelters but finds it difficult to get a feel for how valid the complaints are. "I can't tell without waking up there or knowing what it's like to be thrown out on the street at 6 a.m. in the cold when there's nothing open," he said.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee has requested that HSA staff stay in shelters at least once to get firsthand experience, but it's yet to receive confirmation that this has occurred. When we asked Rhorer about the policy, he said, "There are 1,800 employees who work for HSA, so there is no way of knowing if any of them have been homeless and used the shelter system."

In our first conversation, Kayhan told me he had never stayed in a shelter. In a later interview, when I asked what he thought about the public perception of the shelters, he said, "I'm just not sure that the criticism that I hear around the shelters as being dangerous hellholes — or whatever has been said — matches what I see in the shelters or what I read with respect to incident reports or what I hear at the Shelter Monitoring Committee or at the shelter directors' meetings. So perception is reality."

"Housing first" has been Mayor Newsom's modus operandi for handling homelessness, and it's a good one — the idea being to stabilize people, whatever condition they're in: drunk or sober, clean or using, ill or able, young or old, alone or with family.

The city's 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, released in 2004, recommended 3,000 units of supportive housing to get the chronically homeless off the streets. Kayhan confirms the Mayor's Office of Housing is on track to meet that goal through master-leasing SROs and building or renovating new affordable units, where occupants will get supportive services.

The chronically homeless, a catchall term for folks who stick to the streets and don't or aren't able to use the system, have been the mayor's target and Kayhan's priority. This makes sense because they're the most visible face of homelessness.

Last year's city budget allowed a tripling of staff for the Homeless Outreach Team, which works diligently to move the most entrenched homeless off SoMa side streets and out of encampments in Golden Gate Park. A special allocation of shelter beds was set aside for them, and those who refused shelter were put directly into stabilization units in SROs, bypassing the shelter system entirely.

For some, this has been great. It's how Leonard finally started to make some progress. He bailed on the shelters after having his possessions thrown out three times by staff and hit the streets, where HOT found him, deemed him "shelter challenged," and moved him into a stabilization unit.

"I feel almost as good today as the day before I became homeless," he tells me one afternoon in January. The Bay Area native is hoping to transition into a subsidized rental soon.

Twenty-five percent of shelter staff are required to be homeless or formerly homeless. Some shelters hire up to 80 percent.