A small step forward
- San Francisco Chronicle
A small step forward
Getting hard-core homeless into housing a huge battle -- and it's just the beginning
Rhonda Bye is a living testament to the frustrations and joys of housing a chronically homeless person in San Francisco.
She tumbled into homelessness last fall when she fled here with her husband, David Bye, from Washington state, where authorities say he shot a man to death in an argument over money. San Francisco police cornered the pair in an alley in San Francisco just before Thanksgiving last year, and within days David Bye was handcuffed and carted off to Seattle, where he is still jailed, awaiting trial for murder.
Rhonda, 37, went back to the same sidewalks she had been sleeping on. Only this time she was alone.
And addicted to heroin. And penniless, refusing to apply for welfare out of pride.
She panhandled at the Highway 101 off-ramp at Duboce Street by day and slept in a nearby doorway at night, her slim form curled beneath two blankets. Her blond, shoulder-length hair was matted, her face was a mass of sores picked open by ceaseless scratching, and her shopping cart full of clothes and cardboard scraps shifted from doorway to sidewalk and back to doorway again.
She became a fixture of the corner. And as such, she became exactly the sort of street person San Francisco needs to help the most -- the chronically homeless, those most visible and dysfunctional people whose proliferation has helped give the city the worst homelessness problem in America.
Mayor Gavin Newsom began several programs this year to move the city's 3, 000 hard-core homeless off the sidewalks. Foremost among them is the creation of "supportive housing," which means housing where the homeless can live in buildings with counselors who help them conquer the mental, employment or addictive problems that ruined their lives.
By early next year, the Newsom administration will have created 1,300 new supportive housing rooms -- and if all of them went to hard-core street folk like Bye, the problem would be cut almost in half.
But most of those rooms are not going to the chronically homeless. They are going to the more functional homeless, the estimated 12,000-strong "cream" of the population who stay in shelters or with friends and sometimes even hold jobs. This practice is called "creaming" by social workers.
So far this year, 730 homeless people have been moved into supportive housing under Newsom initiatives, but just 18 percent of those were chronically homeless.
The very fact that homeless people are being housed by the hundreds is an achievement. But getting the Rhonda Byes of the city to move indoors, and then to take advantage of the services offered, has proved to be an ordeal of false starts and failed expectations that go hand in hand with every hard-won success.
When it came time to survive on her own, Bye at least had something extra to fall back on: her charm.
A winsome, gap-toothed smile combined with wide, blue eyes and ever-ready conversation on everything from politics to child-rearing made her well liked by passers-by and drivers -- and in appreciation (mixed with pity), they forked over $10 to $20 every morning. That was enough to buy drugs -- and food when she didn't feel like walking to a soup kitchen.
The easygoing style also helped keep her out of trouble. "She's so damned nice, we all look out for her," said Ron, who often hung out at Duboce Street with Bye. "She shares her food, and her dope if you're hurting. We don't let no one mess with her. She's not your typical street girl."
The whole time she was begging and sleeping at the freeway off-ramp, Bye was within sight of the office of the very man who was busily creating programs to help hard-core homeless people just like her: Trent Rhorer, the mayor's homelessness czar. So it was no great surprise when Rhorer happened upon her on the morning of June 15 as she sat on the sidewalk with a Chronicle reporter and photographer. He came over to chat with the reporter, saw Bye, and asked her what she needed.
"A place to live, but I look like hell, so I don't know why they'd want me," she blurted out. Rhorer pulled out his cell phone, summoned an outreach worker, and within minutes, the worker was taking down Bye's name, age and Social Security number to log her in to the Newsom administration's new Care Not Cash welfare system.
"We can help you. Just be patient," Rhorer told her, leaning in close and peering intently into her eyes.
"Uhh ... OK," Bye stammered. As Rhorer and the outreach worker walked away, she let the first big grin in days creep onto her lips. Suddenly, after her first meaningful conversation with a street counselor, the idea of getting official help didn't seem so bad.
It was several more days before she got her first appointment at the downtown welfare office on Mission Street to apply for housing. The first thing they asked her was whether she wanted a shelter bed; they said they didn't have a permanent room available. She said no. She signed the welfare papers and, in two weeks, got her first twice-monthly check for $28.50.
As the next two months rolled by, however, even though she got her welfare money and $100 a month in food stamps, Bye was told there was no residential room available. She also wasn't able to get into a program for methadone, the chemical that helps heroin addicts kick their habit. Every time she checked with the city's homeless counselors, she was told there was no rehab spot for her.
Meanwhile, she slept in the street. Most of the assistance checks were blown on heroin, cigarettes or the occasional crack rock.
Then on Aug. 13, she went to the welfare office and was told she had a room at the Elm Hotel, a newly refurbished supportive housing gem in the Tenderloin. The room was created under Care Not Cash, the 7-month-old program that reduces welfare checks to the homeless and redirects funds into building up social services and housing. All she had to do to get the room was pick up a $91 welfare check earmarked for paying the first month's rent and take it to the offices of Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit group that serves as a bridge between supportive housing tenants and the residential hotels where the programs are based.
But when Bye went to the clerk window at the welfare office to get her money, she was told it wasn't there. It was at the Lutheran office, the clerk said. She walked three blocks to Lutheran, where she was told her check was at the welfare office. So she went back, and the welfare office sent her back to the Lutheran office.
After weeks of coming again and again to appointments only to be told to come back later, she finally broke down.
"Oh, my God, I thought I would finally get to sleep inside tonight, and now I don't get nothing -- no room, no check, no methadone, no nothing!" Bye sobbed. "I'm so tired, so tired." She sat and cried for several minutes on the sidewalk outside the Lutheran office.
Finally, she went inside one more time -- and this time, the check was located. Bye got an authorization slip and walked three blocks to the Elm Hotel.
Stepping into the tidy little room with its double bed and dresser, she collapsed on the mattress and smiled happily, eyes closed.
And her shopping cart? She left it on the street.
"I don't need it anymore," Bye said. "Too dirty."
The first people she met were Dirk Beszia, the hotel property manager, and four counselors who have offices on the first floor. They are the "supportive" part of the housing, there five days a week to help the Elm's 82 residents get into drug rehab and connect with charities that hand out clothes, furniture, appliances and food. They also link residents with support groups on personal finance, anger management and job skills -- and twice a week, the caseworkers hold movie parties or bingo gatherings in the lounge.
"This isn't just a place to house formerly homeless people," Beszia told her, as he tells all arriving tenants. "It's a community, where people have individual rights and everyone respects each other."
Bye stood speechless a moment. "This is going to change my life," she whispered.
The change would be slower than she thought.
That night, Bye walked out to the Mission District, scored a $7 baggie of heroin, and went back to her Elm Hotel room to inject it. A full week dragged by before she finally got a long-awaited appointment at the city Treatment Access Program, or TAP, which is where addicts go to get scheduled for methadone rehab. The intake worker there sent her to Westside clinic -- where she was told there was no open spot for her.
The next week, on Aug. 26, she went back to TAP. She was still miffed over the delay when she walked in the door, and she tapped her feet impatiently as she sat in the waiting room. After 45 minutes, intake counselor Tom Lawlor called her into his office and told her she was cleared to go to Westside -- but there was no doctor on duty to give her the physical exam each addict needs before taking methadone.
"Maybe tomorrow," he said gently as Bye seethed in her seat before him. "I am so sorry. You have been so very persistent, worked so hard, you really deserve a break. It shouldn't be this hard."
At least 80 percent of the homeless who are told to come back for appointments never show, he said. Bye was a "wonderful exception."
Bye sighed, managed a weak chuckle. "Oh, well, I'm not into reality," she said. "It sucks." They laughed together.
Bye left the office and went straight back to the 101 off-ramp at Duboce and panhandled $10, enough for a quarter-gram baggie of heroin. She shot up in her room.
Several days later, Bye got into a methadone program at San Francisco General Hospital, where she could at last trade her daily heroin hunt for a once-a-day bus ride to the hospital for a dose of the chemical that suppresses hunger for the narcotic. By then, it was Sept. 2 -- 21/2 months since she had met Rhorer on the street.
At the Elm Hotel, the on-site staff members wanted to nudge her toward the next steps in patching together a healthy life. She held clerk jobs in Washington state years ago, before drugs knocked her off kilter, and they thought she could be retrained for office work. But whenever they tried to find her to set up peer-support counseling or job training, she was gone.
It's still that way.
"I guess my main trouble is I don't ever go to see them," Bye said, noting with a wry grin that her room is across the hallway from the caseworkers. "It's really my fault. I'm just not ready to talk to them."
Three and a half months after moving indoors, her routine has barely changed.
Bye shows up to sleep, heads out to Duboce to panhandle in the morning, hangs out with a few old street pals in the day, then comes back to crash. She says little more than a polite hello to anyone else in the Elm.
Her room is usually a mess of food wrappers and clothes strewn about. She has stayed religiously with her methadone, but the last syringe she used months ago sits on a box near the bed with other trash she hasn't bothered to throw out. The needle is coated with dust.
The rent is no trouble: It's $465 a month, and the city picks up the tab. If she ever gets a job that pays more than the top welfare allotment of $410 a month (all but $59 of which is deducted, under Care Not Cash, to help cover the rent), she will have to pay rent herself. But she gets to live in the Elm as long as she wants.
In addition to the $59 a month, Bye now gets $128 a month in food stamps -- and that's the sum total of her income. Someone carefully buying only fresh vegetables and rice could perhaps stretch the money, but Bye can't seem to make it last. Her main diet is Frosted Mini-Wheats and Top Ramen noodles, and between that and buying toiletries, cigarettes and the occasional fast- food treat, her welfare check is always gone by midmonth.
She uses the $10 to $20 a day she earns from panhandling to fill in the gaps.
"The best thing about the hotel is I have a place to sleep inside, out of the rain, where it's quiet," Bye said recently as she sat on her bed, the centerpiece of the room. A battered radio boomed KFOG's middle-of-the-road rock from one corner, and a sign she carefully hand-painted, with purple and orange flowers, covered part of the room's one window. "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today -- tomorrow never comes, and today is always here," the sign read.
"This s -- is scary," she admitted, puffing on a Marlboro. "I've been on the street a long time, it seems like. I don't know how to do anything else. I need some help figuring it out."
As the smoke curled around her face, Bye mused about when she might be able to talk to her jailed husband again. Or visit their three teenage children, who were placed with relatives six years ago after Bye and her husband hit the skids from drug abuse. Or if she might ever work again, or earn enough to get a big apartment.
"I think ... I think ... I'm just scared to fail again," Bye said quietly. "I don't want to lose what I've got here."
The hotel's counselors said they couldn't speak about Bye's situation without her present, but off the record one acknowledged that it's really up to her to make progress happen.
"It's natural to be scared, and we can't come on too strong," the counselor said. "She has to come to us in her own time. The shame of it is that the things she thinks she needs to panhandle to get, we can get for her free from food pantries or charities of some kind.
"All Rhonda has to do is ask."
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom built his campaign on reforming the city's homeless services. When he took office in January, the city had the nation's worst hard-core homeless problem -- with at least 3,000 people panhandling, sleeping, drinking and shooting drugs on the street every day. Reporter Kevin Fagan and photographer Brant Ward have tracked the city's progress under Newsom since his Jan. 8 inauguration.
Sunday: San Francisco is moving hundreds of people into housing and treatment programs but still has a long way to go.
Monday: The painstaking, day-to-day struggles of San Francisco's new homeless outreach team.
Today: Inside the new housing programs San Francisco is counting on to help solve its homeless crisis.
For full coverage of San Francisco's homelessness crisis from Chronicle staff writer Kevin Fagan and photographer Brant Ward, go to sfgate. com/homeless/. The package includes:
-- The five-part "Shame of the City" series from last year.
-- Reactions to the series from readers and officials.
-- Subsequent stories about supportive housing and other programs that show signs of helping to ease the crisis.
E-mail Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.