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City tries lottery system for homeless shelter beds

SF Public Press
 — Apr 8 2011 - 3:34pm

One of San Francisco’s principal shelters is gambling on a new lottery system, operational as of today, that it says will more effectively allocate available beds for homeless people.

The plan by Multi-Service Center-South, a 300-bed shelter at Fifth and Bryant streets, was first announced last week through a series of notices posted inside the facility. Shelter clients were officially informed about the change at a specially arranged meeting Thursday in the drop-in center.

At the gathering, staff said they hoped to put an end to the competition among shelter seekers, who line up daily during the early morning hours in the hopes of obtaining one of 60 single-night bed reservations available across the city.

Under the new lottery system, clients at the service center will receive a numbered wristband when they show up to make a one-night reservation in the morning, said operations manager Wayne Garrett. The numbers on the wristbands will then be thrown into a lottery-style drawing to be held each afternoon at 5 p.m, with results posted at 6:30 p.m. Confirmations will be available until 7 p.m., at which point any unclaimed reservations will be made available to others seeking a bed.

“Number 1 will not be number 1, and number 60 will not be number 60,” Garrett told the 40-person audience. “The numbers will change every single day.”

During a question and answer session at the meeting, a client asked what will happen to lottery bidders if the city’s computer system — known as Coordinated Homeless Assessment Needs through Guidance and Effective Services, or CHANGES — suffers a shutdown, as it did during an entire weekend in March, delaying confirmations for hundreds of people seeking shelter from bad weather.

Garrett said the lottery numbers “aren’t part of CHANGES,”  contradicting a notice issued the previous week by the city’s Human Services Agency, which said wristband numbers would be recorded in the system.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, doubts that the lottery will be a big improvement.

“The changes further indicate how the shelter system in San Francisco is nowhere meeting the needs of homeless,” Friedenbach said, adding that regular changes to the system like these are “confusing to follow.”

“They're constantly closing homeless programs and changing access points,” she said.

Previously, clients would form a queue as early as 6 a.m. outside the shelter’s entrance on Fifth Street, which opened its doors at 10 a.m. Once inside, they would provide clerks with basic information — their names and the last four digits of their Social Security number — and receive wristbands along with an order to return later in the day for bed confirmations.

For those waiting too far back in line, however, the only option was to return at 5 p.m. for a second, and even less likely, round of reservations.

Under the new lottery plan, that first-come, first-serve fight will end, as the distribution of wristband numbers will take place at 9:30 a.m. for everyone, regardless of his or her place in line, Garrett said.

MSC-South is one of only four reservation centers that makes referrals to homeless shelters throughout the city, and is the first such center to institute a lottery system.


@StuartOn the surface, it seems like an improvement over standing in line, but a lot of homeless people I've met in the Tenderloin have told me they go stand in line for food and beds for hours, in part, because there is nowhere else for them to go and hang out during the day where they won't be hassled by the cops or others.I'm not saying the lottery system will be worse or better, but as you said, not a real solution to the problem. I still can't believe they installed those automatic self-cleaning toilet kiosks (at cost of like 1/2 million each or something ridiculous like that!) around town instead of building and staffing a large daytime community center where folks could go and shower and hang out during the day...  OR more shelters/housing... OR mental health services... OR drug rehab services...Paige Bierma

This article is a perfect example of the poverty industry at work.  Reporter makes money and/or advances career; director of Coalition on Homelessness makes money sitting at desk talking to reporter, shelter worker makes money writing memos, changing system, and talking to reporter; HSA worker makes money writing memos, changing system, and talking to reporter; SF Public Press uses article to raise more money from people and foundations - everyone laughing on the way to the bank on the backs of poor people.  San Francisco - the city that knows how.

 Why can't capitalism offer no frills housing? Why? A 5x10 room and common shower would solve 50% of the problem. Even at $200 / month such a small space would be better for folks who are trying to get off the streets.Regardless, they would not be on the streets sleeping in business districts.City Ordinances are likely standing in the way.Why can't people grasp free will and how to solve its problems?

Despite the pooh-poohing, this sounds like a vast improvement over having to wait in line for four hours. Obviously, the larger problem of not having enough beds really needs to be resolved, but this seems like an improvement that this shelter can manage to make.