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.


I totally support this initiative. It is remedial action that is long overdue.

Posted by Mark Barnes on Jul. 19, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

I wish the Guardian would someday choose to get its facts straight. Last year the Coalition on Homelessness' argument against Prop L was that there was not enough shelter beds for all the homeless in our city. Now, they claim there are hundreds of beds that go unused each night? San Francisco is one of the most giving and progressive cities in the world when it comes to social and homeless services. Let's have an honest conversation and really decide if the city can afford to pay $422 a month to thousands of homeless residents. If this initiative does pass there will be a new influx of homeless residents coming to our city looking to cash in, and the ones who are already here who desperately need the services will be the ones who will suffer more. Reality should trump political desires in this debate.

Posted by Care not Cash on Jul. 20, 2011 @ 9:33 am

Jesus-friggin-Christ! The root of the problem isn't whether CNC works better than cash, its the fact a new recipient only needs to be a city/county resident 2 WEEKS to apply. If the residency requirement where one year, all the assistance programs would be benefitting real residents rather than traveling freeloaders.
Those against CNC say cash draws people here. Bullshit. Every city gives cash, what draws them to SF from nearby cities is the quick residency requirement, allowing them to sign up, get a mailing address and go home collecting from afar. A 1 year residency would be much harder to commit fraud with, requiring proof such as check stubs, rent receipts, tax returns, state issued ID, etc. to qualify.
As for CNC, it draws more people than the old cash system because they are going for the "brass ring", a new high-rise apartment, total benefit package, which is what everyone is promised when they sign up (you're on a "list" for a spot). Until then you get a shelter bed, taking all the beds from the homeless who want no part of this system. You don't have to dismantle CNC to make it work. Just extend the residency requirement, which will slow the incoming to a trickle, and allow those in the system to actually be assisted. And as anyone who works in GA will tell you, people fall off the program all the time. The current glut would fix itself over time.

A one year residency requirement wouldn't affect anyone currently enrolled, only discourage those across the country considering coming here for the easy money. One year on the street is a lot harder to do than 2 weeks.

Posted by JoetheSFRepublican on Jul. 20, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

I'm sorry. I wrote my post in a fury, was not clear on a few points:

Both assistance programs, Care-Not-Cash and the regular cash program, can work if the residency requirement were a year rather than 2 weeks.

The cash program failed because it was easy to commit fraud. They only had to prove two weeks residency, then return once a month for an appointment.

Care-Not-Cash has a different problem,it attracts out-of-state people coming here specifically for our new all-inclusive program. The system has swelled, and now it has taken over the shelters system as well. And SRO's are no longer an option for working class people, either, because CNC has taken over a large number of them, too.

As a Republican, I personally would like to see Care-Not-Cash dismantled, I think a cash system is acceptable. As a realist, I'll accept either if they could just fix it by creating a one year residency requirement.

Posted by JoetheSFRepublican on Jul. 20, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

Didn't Jane Kim pull this ballot initiative? Is this article moot?

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 27, 2011 @ 9:16 am

we published a blog post on Kim's pull yesterday:

this article was published more than a week ago.

Posted by marke on Jul. 27, 2011 @ 9:38 am

Thanks. When I clicked "This Week" earlier this morning, this article popped up so I thought the article came out today. Thanks for the clarification.

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 27, 2011 @ 11:16 am