There are currrently 922 people on San Francisco's 90 day emergency shelter waitlist.

Half of them have been waiting for over 837 days.

Everyone who’s lived in San Francisco is aware of the city’s homelessness problem. In many areas, it seems like every street is also someone’s a bed, making the lack of affordable housing painfully obvious.

What isn’t obvious, however, is precisely how big the gap is between the needs of the city’s marginalized population and the services available to help them. Unless they’ve experienced it directly, most San Francisco residents are only vaguely aware of the city’s shelter system and its limited capacity.

But it’s possible for anyone to get a real-time glimpse into the scale of San Francisco's homelessness crisis. The city publishes its emergency shelter waitlist, which is updated daily in typical (non-pandemic) times. It’s intended to be used by those on the list who want to track their pace in line, but it also serves as a live measure of precisely how much the shelter system is overflowing. The data, visualized in the below infographic, reveal how many people are waiting for a shelter bed, how long they’ve been waiting, and how old they are.

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Covid-19 Note:

Earlier in 2020, city officials decided to allow no new reservations in hopes of preventing virus transmission between shelter guests. All those currently in shelters will be allowed to stay indefinitely, and those on the waiting list will maintain their place in line. The most recent date of entry to the waitlist encoded in the data is August 12, 2020.

It is not clear what exactly has become of the people who are still on the waitlist and visualized in this infographic. Some may have entered one of the city’s shelter-in-place hotels or other alternative housing options made available in response to the pandemic. Others may be forced to sleep on the streets until the shelter waitlist starts moving again.

What exactly does this infographic show?

This infographic represents the people currently on San Francisco’s 90-day emergency shelter waitlist, published via the city’s open data website. The list is typically updated daily, and the infographic will update when the list does. The waitlist contains a code for the date each person entered the waitlist, their rank in line, and their date of birth.

Each person icon in the infographic represents one person on the waitlist. You can hover over any icon to see how old the person it represents is and how long they have been waiting for a shelter bed. The icons are arranged in order of their rank on the waitlist, so that the person at the top of the list is at the top left of the page, and the person at the bottom of the list is at the bottom right. You can click the button at the top of the infographic to sort people on the waitlist by age.

Each person on the waitlist is represented by a semi-realistic person icon that has visible gender, race, and physical ability characteristics. But the waitlist data does NOT contain demographic information. Instead, these icons are randomly selected and designed to crudely represent the demographic characteristics of San Francisco’s homeless population. Based on data from the most recent count of homeless people in San Francisco (pg. 16), about 37% of homeless residents are black and about 51% are white or multi-racial; about 59% of homeless people identified as male, 35% identified as female, and 4% identified as transgender; 69% of homeless residents reported living with a health condition that limited their ability to take care of themselves, including 27% who have a physical disability.

What is San Francisco’s emergency shelter system?

San Francisco has about 2,500 emergency shelter beds, according to UC Berkeley sociologist Chris Herring, which homeless residents can attempt to reserve for fixed periods of time. The 2019 count found that there were 2,412 people living in emergency shelters, which would suggest that the system is at about 96 percent capacity. In actuality, however, there are many people waiting for a chance to fill one of those vacant beds.

“I have heard city officials try to confuse the public on this point a number of times,” Herring wrote in March 2019. “[They cite] the numbers reported by shelters that say only 90–99% of their beds are full to demonstrate that vacancies remain. However, this vacancy is rather a product of bureaucratic mismanagement in failing to fill beds, than demand being met by supply.”

While the shelter system includes beds specifically for families and youths, only the waitlist for adult 90-day emergency shelter beds is posted online via San Francisco’s 311 website. According to San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, there are currently 1,203 beds available to homeless residents over the age of 18.

How does the 90-day emergency shelter waitlist work?

The full process is outlined on San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing website. Homeless residents can enter the waitlist by calling 311 or visiting one of the locations where the waitlist is posted. Residents have the option of listing shelters where they don’t want to stay and will be passed over when vacancies open at those locations. The waitlist is supposed to be updated everyday with the names of those who requested shelter beds, who are added in a random order.

When someone reaches the top of the waitlist and there is an opening at one of the shelters they requested, they have 10 days to contact 311 and accept their reservation. Individuals can then sleep in the bed as long as they check-in before the shelter’s curfew, have a negative tuberculosis test, and have a fingerprint or photo in San Francisco’s homeless services system (or are deemed exempt from providing identification). If someone doesn’t contact 311 in time, they will be dropped from the waitlist.

If they do not have a 90-day reservation, residents can also try to secure a one-night stay in an emergency shelter, which may become available if someone misses curfew for their reservation. These reservations must be made by waiting in person at a shelter.

What is waiting for an emergency shelter bed like?

Once someone has entered the 90-day emergency shelter waitlist, they don’t have to do anything until they reach the top of the list and must contact 311 to secure their reservation. While they wait for a longer reservation, however, many try to access one-night beds via the in-person waiting process.

TJ Johnston, a reporter for the Street Sheet newspaper who has experienced homelessness, wrote about waiting for a one-night stay in the MSC-South drop-in shelter. In the article, which was published in 2014, he describes spending hours in line at the shelter. People wait to sit down in numerically-labelled chairs and then wait for their chair number to be randomly selected to get a bed.

If someone leaves before getting a bed, they lose their spot in line. The only exception, according to Johnston, is scheduled smoking breaks. People receive donated sandwiches while waiting in line and can eat dinner in the shelter if they receive a spot early enough. Otherwise, they might spend the whole night waiting for a bed.

“Sometimes, [those still waiting for shelter] spend a long, uncomfortable night in a drop-in chair,” Johnston wrote. “Lying down is not allowed, so guests have to perform acrobatics while sitting.”

Herring, the UC Berkeley sociologist, spent over 90 days waiting to access shelter with homeless residents over the course of his research. He often witnessed people waiting at least four hours, and sometimes much longer, for beds.

“Every afternoon and evening at MSC South, and mornings in front of Glide [another shelter] where people go for their nightly bed assignments, I would witness elderly men and women, disabled, and the violently sick waiting for hours outside without chairs or a place to sit,” Herring wrote. “Even in the cold freezing rain, requests for blankets or chairs were denied by staff who said it was against protocol.”

You can view the code used to create this infographic here.

Infographic by Emma Stiefel