Another shelter down

Women are casualties as St. Anthony shuts Marian Residence

Inside the front door of the Marian Residence for Women, a small handmade sign by a former resident advises newcomers, "Don't compare this place to any others."

But I've stayed in the city-funded homeless shelters, and after a night at Marian, it's hard not to rave about the differences. I'm given an actual bed to sleep on, with freshly laundered sheets, blankets, and a pillow. The bathrooms and showers are clean, and I'm offered every toiletry I could possibly need — as well as pajamas. Dinner is a wholesome meal of turkey, potatoes, and steamed greens — not the mystery meat on Wonder bread I received at the city's MSC South shelter.

And unlike the tension I've witnessed at other shelters, the atmosphere inside Marian is close to pacific. After dinner, the 29 other women shower, read, rest on their beds, work on their laptops, or talk quietly while sitting at small tables in the common area. After my mandatory shower, I sit with an employee who explains the rules — be respectful of others, no drinking or drugs, and don't forget to do my chore, which is assisting with dinner service. As long as I'm home by 7 p.m., I can have my bed as long as I need it.

That is, she clarifies, until the end of August — when they're closing the shelter. For good.

Marian is a casualty of a plan by St. Anthony Foundation to cut $3 million from the foundation's operating budget. In addition to closing the $1.2 million Marian facility, which houses 30 women in the emergency shelter and 27 in a transitional program, St. Anthony also will shutter its 315-acre organic dairy farm in Petaluma, currently used as a rehabilitation program for homeless addicts. Its Senior Outreach and Social Services [SOSS] is also losing staff and office space as it consolidates with the Social Work Center.

Five of the foundation's 11 programs face cuts, the result of a two-year sustainability study that St. Anthony's executive director, Father John Hardin, said will keep the charity out of a fiscal tailspin.

"We're not in a financial crisis," he told the Guardian. "The reason we're doing this is so we won't be in a financial crisis."

He said the closures reflect the organization's desire to get back to basics.

But, as one of the 40 soon-to-be-laid-off employees said, "They've said they want to refocus on basic services, but I see shelter as a basic service."

St. Anthony receives no city money for the work it does, but the closures are occurring in what's already a war zone of budget cuts for social services in San Francisco. The loss of any of St. Anthony's programs affects the city as a whole.

"Are we concerned? Yes," said Dave Knego of Curry Senior Services, which frequently refers seniors the group can't help to St. Anthony's SOSS program. "Unfortunately, we already have a waiting list, and the city's cutting our funding back by 10 percent."

The closure of Marian is yet another sign of the slow erosion of shelter space in San Francisco. Since July 2004, 364 shelter spots have disappeared. By the end of August, Marian's 57 beds and Ella Hill Hutch's 100 mats will be gone as well. "You can't afford to lose 57 beds, especially in a place where women are being treated like human beings," said Western Regional Advocacy Project's Paul Boden, who's worked with homeless services in the city since the 1980s. "What I thought was really ironic was there wasn't any attempt to build a community effort to discuss how to save this facility. These beds are an incredibly important community resource."

Some of the women who live in the transitional program at Marian wanted to rally and save the shelter. "First and foremost was to try to save Marian Residence for Women," said Leticia Hernandez, a two-year resident of the transitional program who still hasn't lined up a place to go when the shelter closes.