by TJ Johnston

It’s 4 p.m. and I’ve been waiting two hours already to get a seat at the MSC South drop-in. I spent the last two hours outside waiting in line with about 10 or 12 other homeless people ahead of me — that is, if nobody cuts ahead.

I want to get a bed for the night, and the only things standing between me and that bed are the gate at the entrance, security guards whose searches put the Transportation Security Administration to shame and an empty chair.

Inside already are about 40 or 50 people sitting in plastic chairs watching ‘70s reruns on the 20-inch TV overhead or sleeping on cots most of the day.

The drop-in can accommodate 70 people — or should I say “guests,” according to the San Francisco fire code.

By now, the bed-sleepers have left, and their beds are disassembled to make room for more chairs for us outside. And it’s vital we have a seat not just to get off our feet but also to be eligible for the 5 p.m. sign-up for shelter reservations.

Staff walk over to guests one by one with a clipboard and ask them for their names, last four digits of their Social Security numbers (or birth dates) and choice of shelters.

And then we wait for them to call our names and assign beds that are available. For that night.

I forgot to mention the lottery in place here. The rows of chairs are numbered 1 through 10. After taking our reservations, staff mixes up the numbers — for example, 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. At 5:30, the staff post the now-randomized numbers, and beds are given out in the newly assigned order.

Those lucky enough to have their names called by 7 p.m. can make the shelter’s check-in time AND dinner! The others who don’t must subsist on donated sandwiches — usually, ham and cheese or turkey (I wonder how vegetarians fare?).

In the meantime, guests have to remain at the drop-in until their reservation is confirmed. If they leave before that time, they risk forfeiting their chairs and have to line up outside once more. The only exception to the rule is for smoke breaks at appointed times, and that requires a ticket to re-enter the drop-in.

As guests exit to the shelter, new people who were still in line outside make their way inside the drop-in. And they must sign in and take a chair until people in the 5 p.m. lottery are placed. For these latecomers, it could very well take all night, depending on the availability of beds. Staff at the desk search on the computer for vacancies. Maybe someone missed a shelter curfew, leaving that bed empty. That could be a lucky break for another guest waiting for a place to lie down indoors.

Believe it or not, this process used to be more difficult.

People would wait outside before the crack of dawn outside reservation centers. At MSC South, guests would line up for numbered wristbands given out at 8 a.m. There was a lottery system at work at that time, too, prioritizing people from the wristband line. The first 40 were instructed to return later that day to find their place in the order. That in-between time was the equivalent of a full eight-hour workday. A lucky few scored 90-day reservations, while some got a one-night stay. The rest who didn’t make the top 40 would have to return to the drop-in for sign-up at 5 p.m.

Now, there’s a waitlist for 90-day reservations exclusively accessed by dialing 311. That went into effect in February. Having a cell phone helps, but reservation centers also have direct lines to 311. Assuming, of course, that one is in the system called CHANGES (short for Coordinated Homeless Assessment of Needs through Guidance and Effective Services — yes, that’s the actual name).

To register, people give their name and “last four” or date of birth, and they have their photo taken. Also required are a thumbprint to verify identity (used only within the system) and a TB clearance from the Department of Public Health.

While guests wait for a voice message or text from 311 notifying them of an available 90-day bed, the drop-ins still issue one-night reservations and see people waiting in line at all hours of the day, their lives on hold and in a state of limbo. Groups of homeless people continue to stay overnight outside Glide and Mission Neighborhood Resource Center.

What about those still waiting for shelter? Sometimes, they spend a long, uncomfortable night in a drop-in chair. Lying down is not allowed, so guests have to perform acrobatics while sitting. At MSC South, the lights go out at 10 p.m. It’s the central city’s only 24-hour drop-in, so more people wait outside for an available chair. And some of them have been waiting all day…