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Friday, April 8, 2011

Homeless Who Won't Leave the Street -- No Matter What

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 6:55 PM

click to enlarge Not just a number
  • Not just a number
The Bay Citizen wrote today that San Francisco's homeless czar, Dariush Kayhan, has been overstating the number of homeless people who lived at the Transbay Terminal before it was closed in August for demolition. The article states he'd told two news outlets -- the Chronicle in a February article and the Bay Citizen itself -- that the city had moved 88 people into temporary housing or shelter.

That figure appears to be a recent development; those are not the homeless numbers the city gave SF Weekly last fall. Though we are not cited in the Bay Citizen story, we published numbers much closer to the amount the Bay Citizen's analysis of "hundreds of pages of documents" discovered. And we don't have access to the Bay Citizen's trove, so perhaps it just depends how you're doing the math. 

For the cover story, "Terminal People,"

we tramped the pavement for more than a week prior to the closing of

the terminal, talking to every homeless person who didn't scream at us to

go away, asking about their plans. We stayed until

2 a.m. on the night of the closing to see what happened to the last of the lingerers.

We followed three main characters, and caught up with many

other of the terminal's former dwellers for about a month after the

closure. We found out what happened to those who decided to take the city up on its offer to put them in a room -- and to those who refused help of any kind.

Admittedly, our reporting was anecdotal, and we relied on the city for numbers -- as all other media outlets have. But we think we can add a little bit of perspective to this debate about

what happened in the mad dash to house the terminal's homeless residents: 

  • The Bay Citizen

    found: "The city has repeatedly misstated that 88 people, the majority

    of the Transbay homeless, received housing or shelter. Internal records

    show the official number was just 48."

This might depend on what period the number covers. Kayhan told the Chron in February 2011, that the number was 88. In our story published in

September, we got our numbers from Rajesh Parekh, the director with SF FIRST, a multidepartamental program that works to put the chronically homeless into shelters. He said 49 people

opted to move inside before the

terminal closed. That's just one off from the 48 number the Bay Citizen found.


the effort to get some of the homeless indoors didn't stop then, with

the city's Homeless Outreach Team continuing to try to help those who scattered

after the terminal closed. By mid-September, Parev told us the number of people

who'd moved into shelters or hotel rooms grew to approximately 65 --

roughly half of those who regularly stayed in or around the


  • The Bay Citizen analysis found that for those who did receive help, shelter was provided for a short time -- only a few days -- in many cases.
From SF Weekly's

reporting, the short stay usually was mostly because a vast majority of the placements were at homeless shelters, not hotel

rooms. In fact, the city told us only 17 people

had been able to move into hotel rooms known as "stabilization units."

Parev said it simply didn't have that many openings in its then-stock of 236 hotel rooms; 10 of those 17 rooms had been bought a few days before the closure using money scraped together by the DPH. 

The other 32 people who went indoors went into shelters. A shelter is, by its very nature, temporary, and SF Weekly

witnessed many homeless flat-out refuse the city's offer to go into shelters because of all the rules. Others would

go for a couple of days, get frustrated, and move back to the


  •  The Bay Citizen found that one woman had died while in the city's care.
While the city wouldn't give the Citizen any

details, death is nothing new in the hotel rooms offered by the city to homeless people while attempting to get them into more permanent housing. Parev told us that five people had died of various health issues in the stabilization rooms in 2010 before

the September publication date. In fact, a member of the Homeless Outreach Team is instructed to

open the door to the room if nobody answers for that very reason.

We see the Transbay conundrum from both sides. There was definitely a dog-and-pony show element

to then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's response -- inviting a Chron reporter for a walk through the terminal as he knelt by the homeless and kindly asked them to go indoors (an event SF Weekly crashed). Newsom, Kayhan, and others seemed hypersensitive about how the media would portray the city's response.  

We also witnessed the Outreach Team doing their very best, especially in the

frenzied last few days before the closure, to get folks indoors. Several simply wouldn't budge. That includes the Santa-looking dude in the Bay Citizen's photo, who continued to camp under the eaves of the terminal even after it closed until it was demolished -- and apparently he is still there.

The more hardcore homeless left the Terminal weeks before construction to start encampments elsewhere. Many others waited until the last minute and

demanded a hotel room on the night of the closure. But it was too late -- the city claims it had no more rooms left.

And some who were placed in hotel rooms didn't stay. Many got bedbugs in the Baldwin House Hotel on Sixth Street. Another guy we interviewed absconded and bought himself a van that he now calls home.

Marty Christensen, a 20-year veteran homeless man who did get a hotel room from the city, returned to

the streets after the roof of his room caved in. He had no desire to move to the Baldwin, where the city offered to move him while his roof was fixed.

And to prove our point -- Christensen's own daughter found him earlier this year and offered him the opportunity to move back in with his family in the Central Valley. He even refused that deal, calling homelessness his way of life.

So when analyzing the figures how about considering this one: the number of homeless who will never leave the street, no matter how comfortable a bed you offer.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly    

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Lauren Smiley


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