Homeless for the holidays

Changing demographics in the Bayview complicate city efforts to open a shelter there

On a typical night, 80 people rest in chairs at this Bayview drop-in center next door to the site of a proposed 100-bed shelter.
Photo by Xochitl Bernadette Moreno


As temperatures dropped in recent weeks, those who care for San Francisco's homeless snapped into action.

Shelters stopped requiring reservations, making any beds still open after 8pm available to anyone who needed them. General Hospital's Emergency Room treated the annual uptick of hypothermia cases, working closely with the city's Homeless Outreach Team. Seven people in the Bay Area died as a result of cold weather in the last month — mercifully, none in San Francisco.

"Just one homeless person passing from being cold is way too many," Carol Domino, program director at Mother Brown's Drop-In Center, told the Guardian.

When the cold hit, Mother Brown's staff could be found scouting encampments near its location in Bayview. Besides a respite from the weather, it offers bathrooms, showers, access to case management services, and other resources, as well as two hot meals a day in its dining room. But there's one thing it can't offer: a warm bed.

But that may change. A proposal for a 100-bed homeless shelter next door to Mother Brown's gained political footing this year, despite controversy and a divided neighborhood.



Behind the shelter effort is Gwendolyn Westbrook, director of the United Council of Human Services. Westbrook says the idea didn't come from her, but from Barbara J. "Mother" Brown, the local legend who served hot meals out of the back of a Cadillac Seville before founding Bayview Hope Homeless Resource Center and Mother Brown's Dining Room in 2001.

"People have come in here needing a place to sleep for as long as it's been open," Westbrook said. Brown's solution was to set out folding chairs where people could sleep. Nowadays, 80 people rest in the chairs on a typical night.

Before Brown died in 2005, Westbrook remembers, she made it clear to her successor how much she wanted shelter beds where clients could lie down.

Of her clients, Westbrook says, "it's a lot of people who are from this area, grew up in this area. Some people never leave this district. Their homes might have gone into foreclosure, or somebody died that set them back and triggered something mentally, and now they're on the street. So this is a safe haven for them. This is a place where they can come and just relax."

Even as the cost of living soars and the neighborhood changes, Westbrook says, her clients hold on.

"Most of our clients won't leave the Bayview," she said. "Some of them have told me, 'well if I die, just cremate me and put my ashes up on Third Street. Spread them on Third Street.' That's how much they love this neighborhood."

Human Services Agency (HSA) director Trent Rhorer witnessed the chair arrangement during an August 2011 visit to Mother Brown's. He called the sight "simply not acceptable from a view of humanity."

When Rhorer learned that a warehouse next door had recently been put up for rent, the shelter idea was born. The HSA applied for a forgivable loan from the state's Emergency Housing and Assistance Program (EHAP). In January 2012, the project was approved for $978,000.

On Nov. 19, the Board of Supervisors voted to accept the grant, and on Dec. 10, it assigned the next two steps: city adoption of the lease for the property and creation of a special use district. The rezoning process could take six months to a year at the Planning Commission, and if the shelter ultimately goes through, construction is not likely to begin before 2015.

Until then, shelter options in Bayview-Hunters Point will stay slim. There is no single adult shelter with beds in the neighborhood. The closest thing is Providence Baptist Church at 1601 McKinnon. There, staff lay out mats on the gym floor each night.

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