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The hours-long wait that homeless people undergo each day to get a bed for the night grew even longer last week when San Francisco’s computerized reservation system shut down at shelters across the city, forcing many to endure outside temperatures in the 40s during the two full days it remained out of commission.
The system, Coordinated Homeless Assistance through Guidance and Effective Services, went offline on the morning of Saturday, March. 12, as the city’s Human Services Agency underwent seismic upgrades at its building on 150 Otis St.
The agency had posted a flyer in shelters and resource centers announcing the shutdown, and was expected to be restored that same afternoon. But the outage lasted nearly 48 hours until Monday morning, during which time hundreds of people seeking shelter had no option but to wait in the cold and attempt to book a bed through staff members working slowly, and inefficiently, with pen and paper.
Beth Munger, the Human Services Agency’s information technology project manager, said the network team couldn’t re-establish the server’s connection after the seismic work was completed, though she offered no further explanation nor any apology to those who suffered as a result.
“In a precautionary step, we went ahead and shut down those servers so the morning scripts couldn’t check anyone out prior to us having a chance to perform the bulk check-ins,” she wrote in an e-mail sent to Briana Moore, head of the agency’s housing and homeless division, and to other agency personnel.
Around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, a staffer at Multi-Service Center-South, located on Fifth and Bryant streets, announced to shelter seekers that the system was still down as temperatures fell into the 40s, and even those who’d made reservations were forced to wait as late as 11 p.m. to find out where, and if, they would be given a roof.
Some 1,200 beds exist in San Francisco’s city-funded shelter system. On a typical morning, dozens of homeless people line up outside the service center as early at 7 a.m., where they wait until staff employees start taking reservations at 10 a.m.
The south service center is one of only four resource centers in the city that take shelter reservations – and one of only two that open daily. The other is the United Council of Human Services, in the Bayview district, located over five miles outside the city center.
The last time the reservation system crashed was in July, 2009. In 2007, the Human Services Agency issued a memorandum prescribing manual booking as a backup for system failures. When booking manually, the lag time between a person’s booking and receiving a bed reservation is much longer.
Under the computer reservation system, clients who enter shelters are required to give their name, date of birth and the last four digits of their Social Security number. The city database also keeps photos and sometimes fingerprints.
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T.J. Johnston is a San Francisco-based journalist. He has been published in Newsdesk.org; Street Sheet; Street Spirit; Poor Magazine; Race, Poverty & the Environment; and Now Public, among other publications and Web sites.
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