Robert Brown stands outside the Division Circle Navigation Center on Dec. 7. Brown was recently evicted from a senior center that turned out to be a sham and was forced out from the navigation center earlier this month. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Disabled senior falls through the cracks of city’s system, struggles to avoid homelessness

Inside a quiet room at the UCSF Library, Robert Brown hit the play button on an aging tape player. Moments later, the bone-chilling rants of a woman yelling angrily echoed through its speakers.

“The peaceful days are over, pack your sh— and get the f—- up out of here,” the woman could be heard yelling at an unidentified person. “You pay no rent, so f—- you. If you call the police, I don’t give a f—-.”

Brown said the interactions he secretly recorded between a client and caretaker at a now-shuttered senior care center, Moana’s Independent Living, where he lived for three months before the unlicensed facility was raided by police last August, attest to the months of abuse that he and other seniors there endured.

More than half a dozen people were removed in the raid, which led the San Francisco District Attorney to file a slew of charges, including elder abuse, against its operator, Lavinia Tiueti. But what appeared to signal the end of a hellish living situation for Brown set in motion an entirely new nightmare — homelessness.

Several months after the raid, the illegal operation was evicted from the building at 1208 Stanyan St., along with its remaining tenants, Brown among them. Since then, Brown said he has struggled to stay off the streets, despite repeated attempts to secure housing through the City.

In emails shared with the San Francisco Examiner, Brown has faithfully stayed in touch with the District Attorney’s Office, which he alleges made promises that he would not go unhoused following the care center eviction, although a spokesperson for the DA did not confirm this. He has also made countless attempts to stay on the radar of The City’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), in the hopes of remaining housed.

On Dec. 12, Brown was again given the boot — this time from The City’s Navigation Center at Division Circle, where he had found respite since June. He was told by the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing that he is neither eligible for permanent housing nor permitted to stay at the center.

At 68, Brown is disabled and a senior, yet was told that he does not qualify for supportive housing following an assessment through HSH’s new Adult Coordinated Entry system, which is designed to prioritize the homeless for housing based on each person’s vulnerability.

Brown, who until now has not lived on the streets and therefore is not considered as high of a priority as others on the housing list who have been homeless longer, says he’s fallen through the cracks.

“I am elderly, disabled, the victim of a crime, at risk for future homelessness,” said Brown. “I looked up their guidelines and I am more than fit.”

Despite sustaining a spinal cord injury on the job in 2004 that propelled him into an uncertain future, Brown remembers his past life as a river rafting guide fondly.

“I wish I was back on the river now,” said Brown, standing crookedly over a walking stick, his pale blue eyes dimming under the library’s fluorescent lights.

Brown said that his accident derailed his life, sending him into his sisters’ care in Colorado, but the siblings have long since been estranged.

“She threw me out,” he said. “People can’t deal with the fact that suddenly you’re not the rough-tough river guide, but seriously disabled.”

The Texas native gave his last address as a residence in Half Moon Bay, where he lived with his partner of a decade. But the relationship turned sour in 2014, and Brown said his former girlfriend, who owned the home, called the police on him in a fit of anger.

“She called the police and said there was a burglar in the house,” said Brown. “I said, ‘I’m not a burglar, this is a domestic dispute.’”

With no cash to his name, Brown claims the officers dropped him off at a homeless shelter in San Francisco’s South of Market District.

From there, Brown said he spent time at a nursing facility in San Rafael, before being discharged to the Stanyan Street facility after he fell behind with his medical bill payments.

HSH spokesperson Randy Quezada said that he is unable to comment on clients’ specific cases due to confidentiality issues, but explained Coordinated Entry as a “17-point assessment tool.”

The preliminary assessment evaluates aims to “capture information about a person’s current housing status, history of homelessness and length of time experiencing homelessness, health conditions, vulnerability, and barriers to obtaining housing,” according the HSH website.

“Individuals not prioritized for supportive housing are encouraged to work with our problem solvers to explore other options,” said Quezada. “Problem solving is an essential new component of the City’s homelessness response system that provides resources, financial and otherwise, to help individuals resolve their individual homelessness crisis.”

Problem solving could mean mediating a roommate dispute or helping clients pay an outstanding debt that could help them avoid homelessness, explained Quezada.

But Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Division Circle Navigation Center, called coordinated entry “a flawed system that we need to fix.”

“If a 68-year old man who was evicted from senior housing doesn’t qualify for supportive housing, then who does?” she wanted to know. “This case is a perfect example of what is wrong with the HSH criteria and why we are not seeing a difference on our streets.”

The center is one of five low-barrier shelters currently operating in The City that allow clients to stay for extended periods of time because they are aimed specifically at transitioning people off the streets and into housing.

Initially, they opened on a promise that clients could stay until they found housing or another option to resolving their homelessness.

But given The City’s limited housing resources, the model shifted to time-limited stays late last year. Following City efforts to clear tent encampments from San Francisco’s streets and move their residents into the Navigation Centers, officials ceased making promises of permanent housing placements.

“The Navigation Center is a complaint-based system. They need to open that [bed] up so they can put the next person in,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, explaining that cycling through the system is an “issue that a lot of people are facing.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, the Coalition’s director, said that there is “so little housing” in San Francisco that The City is “prioritizing people who have 20 plus years of homelessness.”

“We don’t think people should have to be close to death before they get housed,” said Friedenbach, adding that there “is definitely stuff we can tweak about Coordinated Entry, but in the end we just don’t have enough housing for people.”

After having been granted several medical extensions due to ongoing treatment for the repercussions of his injury, Brown was told that he had exhausted his stay at the center.

In emails shared with the San Francisco Examiner, Scott Walton, HSH’s Manager of Adult Emergency and Outreach Services, informed Brown that there could be “no further extensions.”

“The Navigation Center placement you received was time-limited. We have allowed you to stay beyond that time but cannot continue to extend you,” wrote Walton. “You are not being exited to the street as you have the option of going to a shelter. I shared the shelter access information in my previous email.”

HSH estimates that there are some 7,500 San Franciscans who are experiencing homelessness at any given time. Walton encouraged Brown to sign up for the City’s 311 overnight shelter system, which would also qualify him for a reservation at a 90-day shelter.

However that list this month contained more than 1,200 names.

Brown said that he added his name to the list, but admits that he has previously turned down opportunities for temporary shelter beds due to past traumatic experiences with them.

“I have been infected twice with bed bugs — I am psychotic about it now,” said Brown, saying that anxiety about sleeping in a one-night shelter has led him to repeatedly opt out.

Ronen said that Brown and others on the brink of homelessness should not be forced onto the street, and in his case called for an exception to the Navigation Center’s time-limited stay rule.

“I have had long had a problem with the Navigation Centers kicking people out, especially seniors, when they can’t get their life together in the most expensive city in the county in 90 days,” said Ronen, adding that HSH’s leadership “has promised me that if someone is working towards staying off the street and finding a permanent place to live, they wouldn’t be kicked out.”

On the day of his exit from Division Circle, Brown said that HSH was “fast” to offer to connect him with the Homeward Bound Program, which is designed to help reunite the homeless in San Francisco with family and friends willing and able to offer support.

But Brown said he has neither.

Forced to move out of the Navigation Center last week, Brown said he now hopes to be re-assessed for supportive housing by HSH, but was told that he would not be eligible for intake until March.

“I am currently spending the nights riding buses. It is an untenable situation,” said Brown. “I have become essentially a homeless person. With no back story, with nothing.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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