The long wait for sleep

The Fair Shelter Initiative could reduce endless waiting times at homeless shelters

People are often forced to sleep on the streets even as beds in the San Francisco's homeless shelters are kept vacant.

Rodney Palmer is 52, and he uses a cane because he has a bad hip. Walking is painful for the homeless native San Franciscan, but to reserve a bed at a shelter, he's got to get up early and cover a lot of ground. "I get up at 4 a.m. and go to Glide" in hopes of getting a long-term shelter bed, he told the Guardian. "By the time I get there, there's people sleeping on the ground."

People arrive at the homeless assistance center so early because the shelter beds that can be reserved for 90 days free up at 7 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis — and they're quickly snapped up.

Palmer reached into his sock and pulled out a small plastic bag full of painkillers to demonstrate how he copes. Lately he hasn't had any luck getting a long-term bed, so he's devoting many hours a day to getting on wait lists for overnight beds. That means heading to drop-in centers in SoMa and the Mission, where at least there are chairs he can rest in. "It's an all-day job," he said. When it comes to waiting outside, "I feel vulnerable. People can die like that when the winter comes."



A coalition of homeless advocates is trying to change the way shelter beds are allocated in San Francisco, and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim has taken up their cause, spearheading an initiative for the Nov. 8 ballot. The Fair Shelter Initiative would eliminate "shelter" from the definition of housing under Care Not Cash, the signature homeless policy created under former Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Since about 41 percent of shelter beds are set aside as housing for Care Not Cash recipients — who represent an estimated 7 percent of the city's homeless population — advocates say the move would effectively free up long-term shelter space for veterans, disabled people, seniors, and others who don't qualify for Care Not Cash. It would, they say, give everyone an equal shot at getting a bed.

At the same time, proponents say, it would solve a recurring problem of beds going unfilled even as shelter seekers wait for hours on end only to be turned away or to finally give up, discouraged by the system.

Cyn Bivens, a peer advocate at Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, says roughly 60 people sign up for shelter beds on a given day at his facility. People who are trying for the 90-day beds show up before 7 a.m.

"They may drop between one and five beds, but we may have 50 people in line," Bivens explains. "Usually, by 7:15, I'm saying sorry, they've only dropped two beds." People then continue to sign up all day in hopes of reserving overnight beds, which are released later in the day. Bivens estimates that about half the people who start out seeking a bed don't wind up getting one.

While Kim and supporters of the Fair Shelter Initiative view the proposed change as a simple adjustment that would improve a dysfunctional system, they face opposition from Mayor Ed Lee and Human Services Agency Director Trent Rohrer, who have described it as a bid to dismantle Care Not Cash.



As things stand, several hundred indigent adults in San Francisco benefit from County Adult Assistance Programs (CAAP), an umbrella encompassing General Assistance and several other programs intended for people who are waiting to receive Social Security Income (SSI) or seeking employment.

Each month, CAAP beneficiaries are allocated a maximum of $422, or $342 in the case of General Assistance recipients, but they never actually see that money. Instead, under Care Not Cash, they receive $65 and $59, respectively, since the rest is deducted for housing. Some CAAP recipients have actual housing in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, but roughly two-thirds are guaranteed shelter beds to meet their housing needs, according to an estimate from the Coalition on Homelessness.