Long-planned closure of homeless shelter sparks controversy


The protesters said the sit-in was part of an effort to bring attention to people who had no place for the night. Photo by Monica Jensen/SF Public Press.

A homeless shelter in the Civic Center area shut its doors this week, sparking debate between activists and city officials about whether it would force clients out onto the street for lack of capacity.

On Monday, protesters occupied an administration building near the 150 Otis St. shelter. Nine people were arrested, cited for trespassing and released, the police said. The group, calling itself Direct Action to Stop the Cuts, took credit for the protest, though no one involved with the group would agree to be identified in a news story this week.

The closure of the 59-bed shelter for men comes at a crucial time in the city, as budget cuts have plagued the Human Services Agency and other city departments — though city officials maintained that the shelter’s closure was not part of this year’s cutbacks.

On Thursday the mayor and the Board of Supervisors agreed on cuts in services across many departments to bridge a projected $438 million deficit. The Human Services Agency lost $17.8 million after the number were finalized.

An aide to Trent Rhorer, executive director of the agency, said the city keeps careful track of vacancies across its network of shelters every night and on average has 100 free beds, so the closure of one shelter would not affect the overall system. 

The city is not completely shutting down the shelter. In 2008, a nonprofit group called Swords to Plowshares, an organization that helps homeless veterans with severe health problems, agreed with the city to develop the 150 Otis St. site into permanent housing for chronically homeless people.

Leon Winston, chief operating officer at Swords to Plowshares, said the organization will be building 75 permanent housing units for elderly homeless veterans. The organization will pay the city $1 per year to operate at the site.

Asked about Monday’s protest, Winston said the opening of permanent housing did not obviate the continuing need for shelter space. “We appreciate the need for shelter beds, and hope that the city will relocate these beds to somewhere equally as accessible as is 150 Otis,” he said.

Paul Boden, a longtime homeless activist, now with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said the closure of this shelter will reduce the total number of shelter spots and increase the pressures homeless men experience on the street — raising their chances of run-ins with the law. 

The city, Boden said, “has money to lock up the homeless, but no money for alternative housing.” He said many shelters already have long waiting lists for beds, and asserted that the shelter’s clients would not be able to find space elsewhere: “I hope people hear about the closure and know that 59 homeless people will be left out on the streets and have no where else to go.”

Dariush Kayhan, San Francisco’s homeless policy director, said in February that he was evaluating capacity in the shelter system and that “we are meeting the need,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. Kayhan, who was on vacation this week, did not respond to e-mails for comment.

Renovations will begin sometime in the fall and are expected to open in the spring or summer of 2012, said Winston of Swords to Plowshares.

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