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Raw Deal for Area Homeless

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Raw Deal for Area Homeless

Lou's head is hairless except for the wild white eyebrows. His teeth look like the jagged remnants of an old cemetery. His nose, he says, has been broken so badly and so often that the nasal passages have collapsed. He runs a bony finger from his nose's bridge to the tip. It serves only decorative purposes now, he says.

Lou will be 93 in November. He walks a little slowly, but he still does 200 push-ups a day. "Not all at once,'' he says.

He lives at 525 Fifth St. in San Francisco, the homeless shelter known as Multi-Service Center South. Clients aren't supposed to stay there more than three months. Lou has slept on the second floor, the third bed in from the aisle, for more than a year. He feels safe there in large part because MSC- South is one of the two shelters in the city that group some of their elderly clients together. The other is Episcopal Sanctuary.

"You see guys pushing the seniors around when they're waiting in line,'' said Jesse Schele, the case manager for MSC-South's elderly men and women, who number from 35 to 40 a night at the 340-bed shelter. "They're a vulnerable population.''

In homeless shelters, seniors are sometimes beaten and robbed of their Social Security money, their belongings and their medication. Sometimes the only beds available are top bunks without ladders. At most shelters, clients have to return to the streets in the morning, with no place to rest and no haven from the elements until the shelters reopen at 4 p.m. -- assuming they get into their first-choice shelter and aren't shuttled around until late at night to score an open bed. The elderly also face shelter employees who view them as nuisances, making no allowances for their physical and sometimes mental vulnerabilities.

This is not news. Indeed, the city began more than two years ago to look into creating appropriate shelters and housing for the growing population of homeless seniors. There was a resolution by the Board of Supervisors in April 2002, a task force convened in January 2003, and a proposition passed by voters in November 2003 (Prop. J).

The result of all these propositions and resolutions and task-force meetings over the past two years?

Still no shelter for seniors. And fewer beds in the existing shelters that are designated specifically for seniors.

Two years ago, 49 beds were set aside for seniors at San Francisco shelters. By December 2003, the number had dropped to 36. Today there are 18 beds in two shelters, according to the Senior Action Network. Three are upper bunks without ladders.

"We're really shunted aside,'' said Barbara Blong, the housing director for Senior Action Network and chair of the senior housing task force. The task force helped to spotlight some problems, gain funding for case managers and push for permanent housing, but it went the way of many task forces. It hasn't met since February. It failed in its mandate to present a plan for creating shelters that address "the unique needs of homeless senior populations.''

The task force bowed to fiscal and political pressures. The city's money for homelessness is going toward permanent housing, not shelters, a policy pushed vigorously by attorney Angela Alioto, Mayor Gavin Newsom's appointee to oversee a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

"Shut them down,'' Alioto said of the shelters in a telephone interview this week. "We don't need shelters. We need supportive housing. Shelters are unsupported housing.''

But in two years, just 90 new units of low-income, somewhat supportive housing have been created for seniors. And 50 of the units require seniors to pay half their income for rent. (More than a few seniors have declined the opportunity.) And despite all the rhetoric from the Board of Supes, three caseworkers hired a year ago to provide the support in "supportive housing'' will be laid off by the end of this month if their city funding is not renewed.

The reality is that there will not be enough permanent housing in the near future to accommodate the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 homeless people 55 and older on San Francisco's streets. Emergency and transitional shelters are a necessary stopgap. Given that, we return to the question posited more than two years ago by the Board of Supervisors: How do we keep the elderly safe in the shelters?

"We need a separate shelter,'' says Schele of MSC-South. Just as young people have Larkin Youth Services and the Lark Inn shelter, the elderly are a vulnerable group that should have its own place. It's not only about safety, but also efficiency. When senior housing becomes available, the word can go out quickly and thoroughly to everyone. Case managers can share resources. Meals can be tailored to older clients; medical needs can be met.

"I'd feel safer in a building with only seniors,'' Lou says. Lou was a foundling, as he puts it, abandoned in the Midwest in 1911 and raised in an orphanage until age 8. He struck out on his own, picking whatever needed picking on whatever farm needed a set of hands. He slept in the barns.

"They wouldn't let you in the homes,'' he says. "Can't blame 'em there.''

He wore hand-me-downs from the farmers' children. "Got some shirts and some old beat-up shoes. Good enough for me,'' he says.

He worked the fields in Stockton for years, then landed in San Francisco, earning money at odd jobs. He has been on the streets for five years, after leaving a "fleabag hotel'' in the Tenderloin where he says thugs kicked down his door and threatened his life. Lou never married. He never had children. There has never been a person in his life he could call family.

Maybe that's why he doesn't mind the shelter, despite being robbed of $25 in change recently and being regularly shoved around in the food line.

"A little disrespect don't hurt anybody,'' Lou says. "All you need is a guy like this,'' he says, pointing to Schele, the bearded, pony-tailed case manager young enough to be his great-grandson.

Schele watches out for him and the other seniors at the shelter. He came on board a year ago, the first time the shelter has hired a case manager specifically for the elderly population. He knows guys like Lou feel safer at this particular shelter than at some of the single-occupancy rooms in dangerous neighborhoods that are supposed to pass for permanent housing.

"I want to find an area to live where if you come out the front door, you won't get knocked off,'' Lou says, adjusting the wad of tissues in the front pocket of his shirt.

Until he finds that place, he will sleep another night on MSC-South's second floor, third bed in from the aisle, his life's belongings locked in a drawer on the floor. Young men fill the rest of the cavernous room. But here in this corner, by the bathroom and the elevator, Lou settles down among the nine other old men lucky enough to score beds in the elders' section.

Is this as good as it gets today for a 92-year-old homeless man in San Francisco, despite two years of meetings and assessments and reports? Our good intentions are meager protection to those who, after lifetimes of work and struggle, deserve a safe, dignified place to rest their heads.

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