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Computer Shutdown Leaves Hundreds of Homeless Stranded

Shelter-seekers waited in 40-degree weather while requests were processed with pen and paper

The hours-long wait that many 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 outdoor temperatures in the 40s during the two full days the system remained out of commission.

The system, Coordinated Homeless Assistance through Guidance and Effective Services, went offline the morning of Saturday, March 12, as the city’s Human Services Agency underwent seismic upgrades at its building at 150 Otis St.

The agency had posted fliers in shelters and resource centers announcing the shutdown, and service was expected to be restored that same afternoon. But the outage lasted nearly 48 hours, 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 were affected by the outage.

“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 email 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 Brannan 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 whether, 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 as 7 a.m., where they wait until 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 more than 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 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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