The Fair Shelter Initiative could reduce endless waiting times at homeless shelters
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.
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.
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.
Palmer falls into the category of people who might benefit from a shorter wait time if Kim's initiative were in place. He was just one of many who turned up at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center — a homeless drop-in center that offers a clinic, shower, and laundry facilities — to watch a movie and eat supper. Two of the others there said they had experienced traumatic brain injuries and had been victims of identity theft. A construction worker explained that he was seeking odd jobs with little luck. Another man shuffled impatiently back and forth as he spoke, scratching incessantly, while he condemned the entire homeless services system as corrupt.
The measure has drawn opposition from Mayor Lee, who is "concerned that changes to Care Not Cash may begin a process that would unravel the program," according to Christine Falvey, Lee's spokesperson. "He wants to make sure we don't do anything to prevent our department from providing the program."
Falvey also noted that Lee was interested in meeting with advocates to find an administrative fix, rather than a ballot initiative, that could address concerns about the shortcomings of the shelter system. Kim expressed some openness to that idea at a hearing, but seemed committed to moving forward with changing the system that's in place. "We do want to address inequity," she said. "There absolutely should be no vacant beds."