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The other homeless

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The other homeless
Care Not Cash helps some by hurting others
By Rachel Brahinsky

Donna Gates was running late. There was a lot to get done: she had to make sure she had shelter for the night, she had to find a place to store her stuff for the day, and she had to see someone about getting her food stamps. Gates shuffled into a City Hall hearing room Dec. 8, squinting a bit through her gold-colored glasses. She arrived just in time to ask a San Francisco Board of Supervisors' committee to stop Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposed homeless program funding cuts.

The committee voted to recommend restoring funds for the Central City Hospitality House drop-in center for a few more months. But there were other things on Gates's mind, like how hard it is for her to find a shelter bed since the mayor's Care Not Cash homeless welfare plan kicked in.

Gates doesn't get help from Care Not Cash, because she isn't part of any city welfare plan. Instead, she earns money by turning in recyclables and cleaning houses, when she can get the work. But she doesn't make enough to pay for a permanent home.

When she stays at a shelter, she told the Bay Guardian, she has to "get up early and there's nowhere to go. You spend your whole day trying to find a place to take a bath or trying to find shelter."

Gates is one of the thousands of homeless folks who are daily scrambling to access services in an era when officials are experimenting with new policy under Care Not Cash - with what everyone agrees are mixed results.

Even Newsom acknowledged this during his Dec. 7 "state of homelessness" speech, when he repeated several times that the city has made mistakes, though he didn't identify those problems. Instead he preferred to focus on his monthly outreach program, which critics say is primarily a public relations vehicle for the mayor. But what Newsom calls "mistakes" are inherent problems with Care Not Cash that critics have predicted from the beginning, particularly when it comes to accessing shelter (see "Shelter Shuffle," 4/2/03).

In the San Francisco Chronicle's recent three-part series on homelessness - as in the paper's prior coverage - these concerns were brushed off as minor. But service providers we spoke to insisted they're serious issues.

Under Care Not Cash, hundreds of shelter beds have been set aside for welfare clients, even if they don't use them. That leaves many - including working adults, seniors, and those unable or unwilling to get on the welfare rolls - on the streets. Undocumented immigrants face special challenges, as available beds in bilingual shelters are harder to come by, according to homeless advocates who are monitoring the shelters and shelter managers we've spoken to.

Laura Guzman directs the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, which serves as a check-in point for homeless people seeking shelter, including Spanish-speaking immigrants. "With Care Not Cash, all of a sudden we started seeing our system with less beds [available]," she told us. Guzman's clients used to have the chance to get hooked up with a guaranteed bed for a week or more, which made it easier for them to get to work each day and to access case-management services in the shelters. "Seeking shelter is back to being a day-to-day affair, which is really disruptive of people's stability. Eventually people give up - if they have work, they'd rather go for work and deal with shelter later."

The Department of Human Services has denied that too many beds are prioritized for Care Not Cash clients.

"We think the system is able to support everyone ... who's attempting to access shelter," said Dariush Kayhan, director of DHS housing and homeless programs. Kayhan said many people choose not to stay in the shelters. He insisted that the number of beds reserved for Care Not Cash clients is low, but at press time he called to tell us that the agency has decided to give back at least 38 beds to the general pool of available slots. This came after pressure from the Coalition on Homelessness, which is closely monitoring Care not Cash.

Beyond the shelter game, there are questions about the program's implementation that the DHS still hasn't answered. While officials tout the fact that 554 welfare clients have been connected with supportive housing in city-funded hotels, they leave out a key point: the housing now occupied by welfare clients isn't newly built.

Most of the dwellings are former single-room-occupancy hotels, which means they housed other poor people. It's good for the homeless to have housing and services, but where do the former SRO dwellers - many of whom are just a step away from homelessness - live now?

And there's the biggest mystery of all: how to explain the dramatic drop in the welfare rolls since Care Not Cash began last spring. As Newsom announced Dec. 7, the city caseload has shrunk by 61 percent since Care Not Cash began in May. At least 1,516 people have slipped off the city dole. But no one knows what has happened to those people, and the city doesn't appear to be trying to find out. Have they left town? Are they living under the freeways? How are they earning money?

Meanwhile, people like Gates keep up their struggle to survive. A native of Atlanta, Gates said she's been homeless, in and out of San Francisco, for three years, ever since losing her last steady job as an office cleaner. Since then she's moved around a lot, sleeping in shelters, on trains, and in the streets - trying to get her life back together.

During the day, when she doesn't have work or when city services aren't open, she said she often spends her time in the Transbay Terminal. Gates has no phone but has voice mail to receive messages. "If you need to call me, call me anytime," she said. "Because our life sucks."

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