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Homeless People in San Francisco Can Phone in for Shelter Beds

Homeless people may use the 311 telephone system to reserve a bed for up to 90 days, using a unique identifying number to determine their spot on a waitlist. This method aims to move homeless people away from lining up at resource centers before they open, sometimes by sleeping outside overnight.

by TJ Johnston

A long-awaited change in the provision of shelter services in San Francisco started taking place last month so homeless people won’t have to wait in line to use them. After a year and a half of meetings between city officials, service providers and homeless advocates on how to reform the emergency shelter system, the San Francisco Human Services Agency unveiled the centerpiece of their collective efforts.

Homeless people may use the 311 telephone system to reserve a bed for up to 90 days, using a unique identifying number to determine their spot on a waitlist, and be notified with a voice or text message. They would then have 10 days to call 311 and accept the reservation.

The agency estimates that the homeless database known as CHANGES has 6,000 profiles of clients vying for 1,139 shelter beds in the city on any given night.

Since Feb. 15, 2014, when the new system went live, 128 reservations were placed in the first three days, said Scott Walton, manager of the agency’s adult homeless and housing division. Assigned 90-day reservations began on February 24.

This method aims to move homeless people away from lining up at resource centers before they open — sometimes by sleeping outside overnight. It would eliminate the advantage people at the front of the line would have, according to a memo from the mayor’s office on homelessness, and could also prevent conflicts over where people’s places are in line.

Amanda Kahn Fried, deputy director of the mayor’s homeless policy office, said it would also ease people who find it physically challenging to wait in line.

“The system was designed to make it easier for people to access shelter — particularly people with disabilities,” she said. “A case worker can certainly assist someone to sign up through 311, provided they are already in CHANGES and have a current TB test.”

Gwendolyn Westbrook, executive director of the United Council of Human Services, the Bayview District-based drop-in center also known as “Mother Brown’s,” said she looked forward to the system launch, anticipating that beds will go to clients faster as a result. Last year, Mother Brown’s drew attention from the media over clients having to spend the night in chairs at the drop-in.

“I think it was a well-thought-out process,” she said. “I hope more people go into Mother Brown’s for a 90-day bed.”

But Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, pointed out in a January 30 letter to the mayor’s office that people with a current 90-day reservation can’t get on the waitlist until they no longer have access to a bed, whether it’s from expiration of the term or a denial of service.

A new phone reservation system at San Francisco shelters may reduce the long lines and endless waits for shelter beds. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso



Originally, during a series of shelter access workgroup meetings, stakeholders agreed that reservation holders shouldn’t be shut out of the waitlist because they might need more than reservation’s allotted 120 days — 90 plus an automatic 30-day extension — to secure housing.

Community members were concerned this would force people out of shelter for extended periods of time between each stay, causing further destabilization. City officials had originally said it is not fair for a newly homeless person to be behind someone already in shelter on the list.

“We understand there is an issue of equity accessing 90-day reservations, but we feel going through the process once is equalizer enough,” Friedenbach wrote.

Her point was that if people could get on wait list again while in shelter, it would mean everyone would have a longer wait to get in initially, but once they were in, would be able to repeat stays if needed.

The Coalition also suggested speeding the process by dedicating an option on 311 to shelter reservations. Prompts on the system ask users to press 1 for Muni service and 2 for all other services, which range from licenses for pets to graffiti removal to sidewalk maintenance.

Reservation centers now have phone lines directly connected to the 311 system and post the assigned ID numbers online at sf311.org/waitlist.

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