The long wait for sleep - Page 2

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

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

The upshot of this system is that most CAAP recipients are effectively made to pay up to $357 a month from their benefits to sleep on a cot in a shelter, provided they make it there by curfew. For one frustrated homeless man on General Assistance who spoke at a July 14 hearing about the proposed initiative, living on less than $2 a day rather than closer to $11 a day was making it very difficult for him to improve his situation.

"I'm trying to look for work," he said, adding that he'd seen job postings in other cities. "How am I going to subsidize my trip to Emeryville or San Jose? I'm stuck, and there are things that I cannot do."

Mark Leach, another homeless CAAP beneficiary, said the low cash grant posed a vexing problem for him too: "I can't afford to pay my phone bill." Living on nothing more than $65 a month can mean living in isolation, with no way to receive calls in case work becomes available.

Another issue arising from the current system, according to Bob Offer-Westort of the Coalition on Homelessness, is that a disproportionately high number of beds are reserved for the relatively small number of CAAP recipients citywide, and those program beneficiaries don't always use their beds. Some don't make it to the shelter in time for curfew, others couch surf, and still others may prefer to sleep outside, far from the confines and crowds of the shelters. If they don't show up to claim the bed, it will eventually become available to someone else for the night — but that can take hours. So people who either aren't enrolled in CAAP or don't already have long-term beds are reduced to waiting, day after day, for space to free up overnight.

If the Fair Shelter Initiative were in place, CAAP recipients "won't be guaranteed a shelter bed" as part of Care Not Cash, says Offer-Westort. "But they'll be competing for more beds," he added, which "should reduce the wait time."

In the meantime, CAAP recipients who aren't being housed in SROs or some other transitional housing would receive the full amount of their benefits. Rohrer, the HSA director, seized on this point as problematic, saying that doling out the full cash grants would draw people to San Francisco from other counties where benefits are lower. "If we start to get folks from other counties and states ... the result will be more homeless people in San Francisco and less access for folks," Rohrer said.

Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness countered this, saying, "they have never been able to prove that people will come from out of town." She addressed the notion that the Fair Shelter Initiative would dismantle Care Not Cash by saying, "It's news to me — big news — that shelter is the entirety of Care Not Cash."

Opponents of the measure who spoke at the hearing argued that $422 a month was too much to give to a homeless person because it could feed addiction. While it's true that many homeless people in San Francisco have substance-abuse issues, many others are disabled or have just fallen on hard times. Advocates say they've noted a surge in newly homeless people accessing services, particularly women.

 

HUNDREDS OF BEDS CUT

Compounding the overall problem is that more than 300 shelter beds have been lost since 2004. During the hearing, L.J. Cirilo ticked off a long list of homeless service programs and facilities that had vanished in recent years due to budget cuts, going on for several minutes.