april 17, 2000. For an update to this article, see Cybervoices:
Healing old wounds, October 8, 2001.
A shelter is not a home
By any measure, San Francisco is home to about 12,500
people who have no home.
25 percent of them are part of intact families. That’s
3,125 adults and their kids who can’t sit down to
dinner under their own roof.
30 percent of them are single women. That’s 4,125
women who have no room of their own.
40 percent of them are single men. That’s 5,000 men
who have no place to keep their heart.
20 percent of them are seniors. That’s 2,500 people
whose golden years are spent on the streets.
100 percent of them contradict the new image of San
Francisco articulated by computer programmer Kevin
Kokoszka: "You look around, and everybody is making
money, driving a Range Rover or a Lexus…. It’s like
a Gold Rush right now."
For those of us who live here, the existence of a
grungy undercoating to the shiny refashioned city by the
bay is no surprise. Although homeless people stimulate a
variety of responses, nevertheless they form a familiar
part of our daily landscape. But for tourists, their
presence must come as a shock. And according to the hype
accompanying Earl Rynerson’s failed Proposition E,
they’re an embarrassment to entrepreneurs trying to
develop new business connections.
For the busy bureaucrats in the Department of Human
Services, however, San Francisco’s homeless population
must be a constant source of frustration. These people
are an uppity lot. They won’t grovel, Dickens-style,
grateful for whatever crumbs the city throws their way.
They won’t go away. They just stick around as though
they belong here.
The Human Servers are caught in the middle. On the
one side, members of the growing homeless population
press their noses against the window, asking for a warm
space by the fire in which to spend the night. The
Servers know the present system isn’t working. An
accessible shelter report prepared last August by the
Local Homeless Coordinating Board acknowledged that
"the shelter system in San Francisco is largely set
up to insure the survival of the fittest." But in
any case, the report added, "emergency shelter is,
by definition, not the ultimate answer to
homelessness." On the other side, the higher-ups in
the mayor’s office and at the state and national level
have made it clear that more funding is not going to
miraculously appear. And prices in this city continue to
climb, so that funds already in hand do not go so far as
they used to.
In short, we’re in the midst of a crisis. And
deeply engrained habits of paternalism and secrecy are
making it worse.
Consider, for example, the events that unfolded last
week, instigated by a Freedom of Information request
filed by the Coalition on Homelessness. The coalition
turned up a plan, many months in the works, to redesign
the city’s shelter program. In meetings on Treasure
Island, safe from the public’s prying eyes, DHS put
together a "Proposal for an Integrated Front End
Emergency Services System for Homeless Adults" that
would, among other things, "create coordinated
access points into the emergency services continuum for
homeless adults that provides assessment and appropriate
triage to better serve homeless adults with special
needs." Meaning simply that homeless people will no
longer be able to walk into a shelter and ask for a bed.
Under this plan, a "mobile access team" will
provide "one-stop assessment and intake," a
giant funnel through which all homeless people will
pour. Like it or not, to sleep off the streets, a person
will become a case whose progress is monitored
"through to exit/aftercare." And this
"case" will be charged a large percentage of
his or her public assistance grant for the privilege.
(Somewhere along the road to Treasure Island, the
planners lost sight of an earlier recommendation that
homeless people save part of their grant for future
The coalition’s revelations led to a confrontation
at last Monday’s meeting of the Local Homeless
Coordinating Board that would have been comic if it had
not been so disturbing. DHS director Will Lightbourne
presented a report "for discussion only" of
his department’s redesign plan, which he insisted was
not a plan but rather "a point to start
dialogues." Unfortunately, many members of the
audience had seen copies of the coalition’s requested
information, which graphically laid out a draft
timetable, complete with lists of tasks along with their
start and finish dates. Equally unfortunately, many
members of the Local Board had not.
One board member after another asked for details,
leading to the following bizarre interchange:
Will Maggie Donahue [director of DHS’s housing and
homeless programs] be leading the process?
Lightbourne: From DHS, yes.
Is DHS leading it, or some other body?
Lightbourne: DHS will lead, with dialogue with the
How do you fit this plan with the continuum of care
[the city’s basic mode of providing service, which the
Local Board is now extensively revising]?
Lightbourne: We’ll have to see.
We’ll have to see. What we can see now is a
topsy-turvy process that rivals Alice’s experience
behind the looking glass. DHS has put together a
Not-a-Plan that is now ready for discussion by service
providers and members of the homeless population, the
people who will run and receive it. The more odious
provisions of the Not-a-Plan resemble the ill-fated
Proposition E: its collection of payment for services;
its transfer of referral procedures from a variety of
service providers to a centralized agency; its linking
of services to compliance with regulations. But there’s
a puzzlement here. Work on the Not-a-Plan began long
before Prop. E appeared on the March ballot. Was it
cobbled together in preparation, just in case? If so,
why is it still in the works, when the people of San
Francisco have said they didn’t want it?
The Not-a-Plan is a slap in the face — to the
voters, to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board and its
affiliated organizations, to the people it professes to
serve. In the name of integrated services, it offers a
more rigid bureaucratic system. Faced with arterial
bleeding, it applies yet another band-aid.
Meanwhile, the crisis intensifies as the housing
market tightens. Existing shelters are already bursting
at their seams. Affordable housing is disappearing.
During the past year, city employees from DHS, the mayor’s
office, and the Department of Public Health have
conducted hundreds of community meetings, drawing on the
practical experience of thousands of service providers
and homeless people, seeking new approaches to an old
problem. And all the while, the preparation of the
Not-a-Plan was making their brainstorming irrelevant.
The Not-a-Plan is not acceptable.