No shelter from the budget storm

Buster's Place, the city's main 24-hour homeless drop-in center, faces closure
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Arriving at the steps of Buster's Place on a cold night is a familiar, comforting act for many of the city's chronic homeless people. Or rather, it was until recently, when a sign was posted informing clients the facility will be closing its doors for the first time in almost a year.

Buster's Place, the only centrally located 24-hour drop-in center in San Francisco, is on the chopping block to meet the demands of one of the city's most drastic midyear budget cuts in recent history. The $1 million cut (roughly the one-year operating cost of Buster's) is only a piece of the $9.25 million the city's Department of Human Services must trim from its annual spending.

Buster's has logged more than 34,000 visits from an estimated 700 clients in the past year. The center serves all walks of life, from lonely elders to those who cannot manage the complex shelter reservation system to newcomers who don't know where to turn. While staff and resources are limited, Buster's provides easy access to essential facilities like showers, bathrooms, and laundry rooms. It's the stop of last resort, as I learned during my recent undercover investigation (see "Shelter Shuffle," 2/13/07, and "Search for Shelter," on the Guardian's SF blog).

"There's a need for this place," Louis Ramon, who is the only case manager working at Buster's and has been at the center since it opened, told the Guardian. "This is where the too sick, the too paranoid, the too mentally ill come who cannot be housed. Nobody is working with these clients — the really hardcore ones."

Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness, has been a leading advocate for 24-hour homeless centers and is pressuring city hall to reinstate funds to carry Buster's through the end of the year.

"It's frustrating when the mayor makes random and arbitrary decisions without consulting relevant community-based organizations or the homeless themselves," Friedenbach told us. "This is another attempt by the mayor to put a nail in the coffin of overnight shelters."

In a Feb. 14 press conference Mayor Gavin Newsom held with Dariush Kayhan, his newly appointed homeless czar, Newsom discussed plans to redesign the city's shelter system, as well as the midyear budget cuts. "We've got a lot of resources that are being spent, but they could be spent more wisely by coordinating strategies," he said.

"With respect to 24-7 access, we're going to have that with the [Mobile Assistance Patrol] vans, to ensure that people still have that. People can, in rare instances, come to the shelters directly if they're in a dire emergency and access a bed if needed," Kayhan said. "And we also want to engage those folks because we don't think sitting in chairs, around the clock, at night — and especially since a lot of those folks are seniors and disabled — that's not a proper place to be."

Less than five months after it opened last year, Buster's was slated to close during the regular fiscal-year budgeting last June. Homeless advocates came to Buster's rescue and had the Board of Supervisors reinstate most of the funding for the center.

However, many homeless advocates and Department of Public Health officials are less optimistic about this round of budget reductions. For one thing, midyear cuts are generally more reactionary, made with little public deliberation, and made because the deficit is bigger than expected.

"This year is much different because the amount of money we need to cut is much more severe," said David Nakanishi, coordinator for community programs at the DPH and responsible for spearheading the planning of Buster's Place.

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