For the past couple of decades, San Francisco's Transbay Terminal has served as the de facto shelter for dozens of the city's homeless people. You saw them, anywhere from 100 to 150 on any given night, hunkered in and around the shadowy pre–World War II cavern at First and Mission streets amid the Financial District's skyscrapers of glass and steel.
They were the first San Franciscans to greet the morning commuters. They slept in what some of them joked were "cardboard condos" lining the parking garage. Some lay on the foyer floor. They panhandled on the bus deck. They jerked off in the bathroom. They had sex on the benches. Those on parole charged their GPS monitors in the wall sockets. The terminal wasn't exactly cozy, but it offered cover from the rain, light to ward off danger, and safety in numbers.
"This is indicative of our failure," admitted Mayor Gavin Newsom, huddling with reporters in the fluorescent-lit bowels of the building a week before the terminal was to be shuttered last month. "It was never intended to be a shelter."
The behemoth bus terminal will be destroyed so that, seven years from now, the hypermodern Transbay Transit Center can rise in its place — a hub of 11 transit systems (including, many hope, the California high-speed rail) that will anchor a tony new neighborhood. While federal, state, and regional government sources are pumping $4.2 billion into the project, they didn't earmark one cent for relocating the longtime squatters.
That task fell to the city. It would be both a challenge and a rare opportunity to confront its most hardcore homeless population: a critical mass of people who didn't have the wherewithal to leave or the desire to accept help.
In a February survey of people living at the terminal, the city's Homeless Outreach Team (known as the "HOT Team" for short) found that the average terminal resident had lived there for 4.7 years. They estimated 50 percent were mentally ill, compared to an estimated 23 percent of homeless people nationwide. "You might not realize how far away from relatedness to others they really are," says Jason Albertson, the HOT Team's leader with a penchant for bandanas and flak jackets. "I don't think anyone takes up residence in a bus terminal unless they don't have the ability to see another option."
Yet the fact that the place was going to be sealed off on Aug. 6 offered a compelling retort to the "fuck you"s that often greeted city outreach workers as they attempted to coax people out of the terminal over the years. "That's the window," Newsom said. "All of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh, wait, something's gonna change here.'"
The HOT Team was targeting 30 to 40 of the most vulnerable people who would accept help into homeless shelters or the few open spots in the team's stock of 236 rooms within residential hotels known as "stabilization units." The placements are intended to get people off the street while case managers help them get things in place — an ID, doctor appointments, housing applications, welfare checks — before they can eventually move into permanent rooms, usually in another city-leased hotel.
"It's not about out of sight, out of mind: It's about creating the conditions where people don't need to fall back," Newsom said. Easier said than done: Only 40 percent of homeless people the city puts into temporary rooms or shelters move into permanent housing – the ultimate goal. Even some HOT Team members were unsure of their ability to provide life-changing solutions: "Some of them will return to trying to obtain shelter, some will be kind of lost, some go through the cracks," one says.
As closing night approached, some residents of the terminal had already scouted new locations on the Embarcadero, or drifted off to surrounding blocks downtown. Others outright refused to go anywhere. One woman named Chauncey ("the resident nutcase," according to some other tenants) rebuffed the HOT Team's many offers of a free hotel room with the same tale told with such confidence you almost believe her: "I'm leaving. I live in Honolulu." She was just waiting for her husband to finish a landscaping job in Palo Alto, so they could go home. No help needed, she insisted.
There were some surprise takers. Marty Christensen, an affable panhandler who stows a can of malt liquor in his jacket pocket, first lay down in the terminal 15 years ago, his life idling on autopilot ever since. But then the Cat Man — his elfin buddy from the terminal, named for the tame cat perched on his slumped shoulders like a pirate's parrot — told him that the city had put him up in a free room in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel. So, two days before the terminal would go dark, Christensen decided to try to nab one himself, shambling into the HOT Team's makeshift office on the ground floor.
Christensen announced he wanted a room like Cat Man's. These were the magic words for a motherly outreach worker, who rushed through a lengthy intake form. Christensen gave her the basics: He's a vet. He has congestive heart failure. He "only drinks three to four beers a night" — that last part with an edge of defensiveness.
The outreach worker lobbed a loaded question: Would he go into a shelter? Christensen isn't a guy who responds fast to much — often chewing on a thought like a tough cud and letting out a couple of groans and other sounds of gloom before speaking — but for this one, he skipped the hesitation and shook his head: "No shelter, no shelter. I've got my own shelter right here," he said, patting his backpack with its sleeping bag.
His answer was typical: Among the homeless, "shelter" is a seven-letter word that possesses the singular ability to inspire vitriol. Shelters give you bed bugs, some say. They're like prison. You have to be there on time, or you lose your bed. You can't come in drunk or high. Crazy people pace the room all night, or proposition you in the shower. Your stuff gets stolen, and the staffers play favorites. In the end, many homeless prefer the street.