Here's how an unhoused person navigates San Francisco's shelter system

Lyanne Melendez Image
Thursday, December 14, 2023
How an unhoused person navigates SF's shelter system
Some unhoused people in San Francisco say getting a shelter bed is complicated and not practical.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Quite often, people think that the unhoused line up every night waiting to get access to a shelter bed. Today in San Francisco, it's far more complicated.

"Every other place I've lived before here, you can just walk in and get a shelter bed if they have an opening. But here, you can't do that," explained Cristy Clark, an unhoused person who moved here from Sacramento.

For many, the first point of contact is the homeless outreach team, or HOT. They help people get on a waiting list for a shelter bed.

If not through them, a phone and the internet are other options.

Let's remind people these are the unhoused. Some don't have a phone, they may have lost it, or had it stolen.

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"You're sleeping, you're not watching and so you lose your phone; your HOT team member call to say there's a spot and then you don't have a phone to answer," said Sammie Rayner of Community Forward SF.

Lyanne Melendez: "Then what happens?"

"And you're back to square one," said Rayner.

We ask one homeless person how they are contacted. Dagan Behm doesn't own a phone and says he relies on emails.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing says it's working on making the process more seamless because once the city contacts a person, they only have up to 72 hours to respond.

We found John waiting outside an emergency shelter. He moved here from Iowa two months ago. After Thanksgiving, he finally got on the waitlist for a more permanent shelter bed.

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We asked him where he was on the waitlist.

"I checked yesterday, I am at 195, that's where I'm at currently," said John.

Melendez: "And you started?"

"Close to 500. I think it was 490, yeah," he told us.

John, like hundreds of others, is waiting to get into one of the city's three largest shelters: MSC-South which can house 410 people, Next Door, 334 and Sanctuary, 200.

People at these three locations are allowed to stay indefinitely without having to pack and leave early the next morning.

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We found Yvonne and her dog Zeus at one of them.

We asked her how long she had been at the sanctuary.

"A couple of years. I've been at all of them," she expressed.

Melendez: "During those two years, you couldn't find some kind of a more permanent housing?"

"I didn't want what they offered. I did not want what they offered," she added.

What they offered her in terms of housing was located primarily in the Tenderloin, known as a hotbed of illicit drug use. Yvonne told me she wasn't about to give into temptation.

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"Loved it, been there, done it, got the t-shirt to prove it - if you know what I mean. I don't want to go backward, I want to go forward and I don't want to make bad choices," said Yvonne.

Currently, San Francisco has a total of 48 shelters offering more than 3,200 beds.

Yet, those who don't get in - more than 4,000 people - have no option but to sleep on the streets.

Among their stock are the Interfaith Winter Shelters - four of them. But they only operate from Nov. through March.

"They come in the late afternoon and stay until 7 a.m. the next morning and during that time, they get a home-cooked dinner. They sleep in the facility. It's nice and cozy and warm and then in the morning we come in at 5 a.m. and cook breakfast and serve them breakfast and then they have to go back out onto the streets," explained Hanna Hart of First Unitarian Church

At 7 a.m. when John leaves any of the emergency shelters, he's now left navigating life as an unhoused person.

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