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Sign of the times.

The following notice appears outside A Man’s Place, the emergency shelter operated by CATS (Community Awareness & Treatment Services) at 399 Fremont:


Due to a shortage of cots…

Starting March 30, 2000 and until further notice

The Daily Lottery

has been discontinued

We apologize for the unavoidable inconvenience this creates.

Thanks for your understanding.



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."


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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 housing.)

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 service providers.

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.


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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.