Concrete jungle

Pub date October 7, 1998

THIS WINTER MAY kill Pokey. The HIV-positive 22-year-old lives in a tent in a city park. It’s not the best place for a man with a weakened immune system to dwell — especially not during the rainy season.

“I’ve basically given up,” says Pokey quietly, standing in the gutter of Haight Street near Stanyan.

About a year ago he had a little more hope. He had been clean and sober for six months and had graduated from a live-in drug program run by Walden House. He thought he had beaten his heroin addiction, and he began looking for an apartment. He’s lived on the streets since he was 12.

“I started looking the last three weeks I was [at Walden House],” Pokey says. Social workers and friends helped him look. “I tried day in and day out to get a place and a job. I couldn’t take it. I flipped out. From there I went all the way back down.” He is once again wrestling with heroin.

In his two years in San Francisco, Pokey estimates, he’s looked at between 30 and 40 apartments, with no success. Subsisting on $299 to $490 a month, depending on the whims of Supplemental Security Income administrators, he can’t even afford a room in a residential hotel. The smallest go for $400 to $500 a month, and there aren’t even many of those left; in the past five years the city has lost about 1,000 hotel rooms, most to demolition and renovation.

“How can I use my money on a hotel room when I’m not gonna have any money to eat?” Pokey says. “I’m supposed to eat three times a day, when I take my medicine.”

Less than 10 years ago, in 1989, the city put the number of people homeless on any given night at 6,000. Now that figure is estimated at between 11,000 and 14,000. Over the past decade homeless deaths have climbed from 16 in 1987 to 153 in 1996. A 1996 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty ranked San Francisco one of the five worst cities in which to be homeless; the report blamed harassing police practices.

About 3,000 shelter beds are available to San Francisco’s homeless population, including 600 in a giant warehouse on Mission Rock Road in China Basin. The Mission Rock shelter, which clients have dubbed “Prison Rock,” was opened last year in the wake of Mayor Willie Brown’s campaign to kick the homeless out of Golden Gate Park. The shelters are full or over-capacity nearly every night of the year.

“The city does nothing for families. It stands by as the affordable housing stock is destroyed,” says Sandra Stewart, project director of Families Rights and Dignity. Stewart, a mother of three who was once homeless, advocates for poor and homeless families. She says she’s seen a “mass exodus” of low-income families from San Francisco.

“Mabel Teng went on about this being the ‘year of the child’ — well, not for homeless children,” Stewart says. She’s angry that the city vetoed a $75,000 eviction-prevention program for families in a year when it had a $100 million budget surplus. According to Stewart, five years ago families could get emergency shelter on demand. Today the city’s 130 family-shelter beds are full, and the wait list stands at around 100 families. The average family on the list consists of a single parent and two children.

In the nation’s toughest housing market, the help offered by welfare programs isn’t much help at all. As of September 1997, 12,475 San Francisco families received subsidies from CalWORKS, the federally funded welfare program for families; a similar number of adults get General Assistance from the county. A family of three receives $565 a month from CalWORKS; G.A. recipients, including workfare workers, get $279 to $345. In the Bay Area $565 is barely enough to pay for a motel room — with almost nothing left for food and other necessities.

Many of those on the streets are there for want of an affordable apartment. Staffers at Youth Industry, a nonprofit that trains and employs homeless and formerly homeless young people, say that the lack of housing is the hardest problem to solve. The agency provides paid internships to 24 teens and twentysomethings, many of whom put in 40 hours a week only to sleep on the streets. According to Youth Industry managers, “very few” of the young interns have permanent housing.

“More and more of our youth are very — how do I say this? — high functioning,” says Vida Merwin, a youth service coordinator with the nonprofit. “They don’t have drug problems. They can hold a job — they’re proving it here. They have academic aspirations. But they’re forced to rely on [social] services.”

Youth Industry intern Jamie Allsup, 22, has spent most of the last three years on the streets of San Francisco. During his first three months on the job he slept in front of the Youth Industry office, using the arrival of his coworkers as an alarm clock. Since then Allsup has spent half his $800 monthly income on a residential hotel room, sharing a bathroom with 40 other residents. At the end of the month, after he’s paid his shelter, food, and old hospital bills, Allsup has $15 left — not much to put toward a deposit on an apartment. Since the hotel has no cooking facilities, he wastes money eating out every meal. As a single-room-occupancy tenant, Allsup has few guarantees that he’ll retain his room from one month to the next.

Cheeto, a mohawked 21-year-old, works at Pedal Revolution, the Youth Industry bike shop. He’s getting paid to learn to repair cycles, enthusiastically working six days a week and bedding down in parks and parking lots at night. Cheeto refuses to stay in hotels; he’s hoping to save money for an apartment in another city — maybe Oakland. Figures provided by the Department of Human Services show that the vast majority of those who get off the streets do so by leaving San Francisco.

Even in a cheaper market, Cheeto is going to have problems. He has no rental history or landlord references. He jokes about his credit record: “They could go down the street and ask everyone I know if I pay back the money I borrow.

“I don’t have any delusions about living in San Francisco unless I’m living like I am now,” he says. “This place is a playground for the rich.” 