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Amid San Francisco homeless crisis, shelter waiting system finally reopens

A mural on the side of a building
People who are unhoused rely on Multi-Service Center South or MSC South Homeless Shelter at 525 Fifth St. in San Francisco for temporary shelter. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

San Francisco has reopened a waiting list for people to enter homeless shelters after going three years without a centralized mechanism for unhoused people to find a bed of their own accord. 

A new dashboard hosted by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing allows people to make a reservation for one of the city’s shelter beds, showing a waitlist that was 20 people long as of Thursday afternoon. 

The city had discontinued the waitlist at the onset of the pandemic to allow for semi-permanent stays at the facilities that were once limited to 90 days, instead relying mostly on outreach operations to locate people for available beds.

The city has 3,081 shelter beds that typically hover around 90% occupancy to make room for emergency intakes while over 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets on any given night. But the department is now aiming to increase its occupancy level to 95% to make better use of its resources, according to Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the homelessness department.

“The idea is to improve the ability for someone to self-refer into the shelter,” Cohen said.“It’s something we have wanted to do for a while.” 

The lack of shelter bed availability has fallen under a microscope in recent months after a nonprofit called the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit against the city last year for allegedly destroying homeless encampments without providing an alternative place to sleep. 

In December, a federal judge issued an injunction that sided with the coalition and prohibited the city from enforcing certain laws that displace involuntarily homeless people. The injunction has led some local leaders to call for more shelter facilities; Mayor London Breed indicated during a May press conference that the city would be moving toward a “shelter first” approach. 

The city has long prioritized funding permanent beds over temporary ones as the homelessness department’s leaders contend that it costs more to pay for 24/7 shelter staff and that deprioritizing housing production would ultimately make more people homeless.

Christin Evans, a member of the Homelessness Oversight Commission, said she believed it will now be easier for people to enter shelters, which she said was notoriously difficult during the pandemic. But she expressed concerns that the city may begin cramming people into shared living spaces. 

“Because of the lack of housing, it’s not uncommon for people to spend years inside a shelter,” Evans said. “There’s absolutely concern about whether shelters are able to staff appropriately with more people living in a crowded space.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at