Experience the Shelter

by Kat Calloway

San Francisco emergency shelters were first established in the 1980s in response to the increasing number of homeless people as a result of reduced Federal funding to public housing. Meant to be a short term solution to a temporary problem, they are still operating today to house at least a portion of San Francisco’s 7,000+ people without housing. About 1,100 adult beds are available each night for anyone who asks while these limited beds are still empty. Whatever one’s gender, color, race, ethnicity, citizenship (or lack of) or legal status, one is not turned away as long as there is an empty bed. For those with legal concerns, no identities are released to ICE, the Sheriff’s Department for exercising a warrant, nor in fact is any identity given to any other Government agency.

Of the number without housing, 3,222 are children. A combined total of 8,000 households currently occupy lengthy waitlists for public and Section 8 housing.

In San Francisco, one bed is available for each six homeless people. Yet what are called nuisance laws target these individuals, and police are required to prioritize nuisance law enforcement, citing and often jailing homeless people, who have gone as a result from being a person without housing to being a criminal. The actions cited are ones our nation once respected as one’s right to life: sleeping, sitting, or in some cases, even standing.

The shelter bed is both a safe haven and a hell of a place to have to live.

The shelter is the intended destination when friends shuffle you off, tired of your coach surfing. Understandable, but an option presented as being in your best interest by those who have never entered a shelter: “You’ve gotta go to the shelter. You can’t sleep outside, it’s going to kill you or get you killed.” A knowing look. Wish I had never mentioned the guy murdered ten feet from where I slept on what I considered to be a relatively safe alley. His throat was cut, ear to ear, and he died quickly, unable to speak but not without his own silent drama. I think of him often, wish I knew his name.

To comprehend the shelter it must be experienced. A large room with frosted windows houses grey metal bunk beds, numbered randomly (341 is below 377 and next to 45), and placed in uneven rows that fill almost all of the cold, dirty linoleum floor. Each bunk is a tray for a ”mattress”—soft foam covered in hard, dark green plastic. You are promised linens: two thin sheets and a coarse square blanket that would make a horse itch, large enough to cover only a portion of the bed. Arrive late and you sleep on the dark green plastic: The linens already distributed.

You and your bunkmate are each assigned a drawer, each occupying half of the space below the two bunks. It is here that your belongings are stored, locked away, if you choose, with your own lock. Protected from your fellow clients of the shelter, your possessions are available to the shelter staff by way of lock cutters. As an old adage goes, ”One shelter stay equates to a fire.” Your belongings often disappear altogether.

In some shelters (others allow no possessions that will not fit in the drawer), two bags may overflow to the floor. Multiple times the number of shelter residents, each parking the bags and emptying them into a tiny square of floor space, and more and more the shelter environment becomes a hoarder’s wet dream.

It’s hard to find a path through the uneven maze of bunks; after lights out it’s like a mine field. Touch someone’s things, even by accident, or stop in the pathway for any reason, and you’ve got drama, if not a full blown physical fight, on your hands.
The noise is a constant buzz, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Totally unreasonable demands are shouted in shrill, intrusive falsettos. There are the white noise machines, a verbal fight or three at full volume, a couple of barking dogs, the cat hissing at the dogs, fire trucks passing outside, sirens at maximum volume, and the incessant talking of those who answer voices that only they hear. The most sympathetic very quickly becomes jaded and angry at the constant annoyance in one’s ears.

The TV room is open from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Some of us find our way to the wooden pews. Gotta get up early to sign the TV list that allows you to pick your show. Usually cartoons trump the news. Tom and Jerry have never entertained more than when they play to the women who laugh continuously and repeat the last word of the funniest lines. At 9:30, the TV and lights are out and sleep is directed. Insomniacs and those with limited sleep needs, or simply those who slept all day, rustle and turn, sleep eluding them sometimes for the entire night.

The shelter is a sacred place of sorts, if the strict curfews and guarded entrances are any indication. Before granted a bed, you wait on a list for about six weeks, after which you are granted the coveted 90 day reservation. In the meantime, you can wait in a line, outside in the weather, whatever and however bad it may be, and hope for a single night of housing. When successful, this patience is rewarded with a plastic chair—no arms, no leaning on the wall—where you sleep for what is left of the night. Once a client, you must pass through the security, guards paid to search your belongings, vigilant for any weapons but even more focused on possible food items that may be hidden for the smuggle. Weapons are taken and food thrown in the trash, your meager resources wasted on what may have been your only nourishment during the long hours between dinner and breakfast.

Your day is planned around the necessary check-in between 2 and 5 p.m. (in person) and the 7 p.m. final curfew (unless the 5:00 dinner tempts you, then you are in for the night at five), each entry requiring a repeat of the security search. The interruptions are time-consuming, with the necessary walk to the shelter location each time making it difficult to be productive or even on time to appointments.

The homeless community has developed a social class system of its own, available to compartmentalize, stigmatize, and isolate those rejecting, or unable to conform to, one’s own prejudices. The shelter carries such a stigma, considered an unacceptable option by many. The freedom retained, with the ability to make choices and decisions that are systematically stripped away by the rigid shelter environment (such as the time you wish to eat or sleep) makes the stigma an easy sell. The lack of control that is eating at your self-value is institutionalized and eats away a little more quickly as you belief in yourself. You begin to wonder if you are capable of making these simple decisions.

And it is that which makes the shelter so difficult. One enters with confidence intact, ready to overcome the little adversities. But as time wears on, often a shelter stay that begins as a tiny stop gap, extends for months, sometimes literally for years. And as time wears, so does one’s defenses. You become the difficult person you could not understand when you entered. You no longer have the dignity or self-respect it took a lifetime to develop, those stripped by the institutionalized treatment growing from a belief that homeless means broken.

When—or I should say if—one finally escapes, the move is most likely to an SRO, a Single Room Occupancy hotel. For $1,000–1,200 a month one rents a small room seldom more than 150 square feet total often with no private bathroom or kitchen. For a family, the space still classifies one as homeless under the Federal definition; for anyone, the SRO is a substandard living space for a human being.

I am a refugee in my own city, every possession on my back, my security and status gone. Most assume the homeless have somehow facilitated whatever it might be that got them to the street, be it drugs, mental illness, incarceration. That assumption is based on stigma, a misconception originating far from the street and the people who live there. Often the cause of homelessness is far from the control of the individual affected. But the ending is similar for everyone who has no housing. The likelihood of obtaining housing is not good. Once the shelter door closes behind you, all circumstances, no matter how well intentioned, work to keep you in this cage.