Shelter Beat #4

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

A PNN insider journey through San Francisco's shelters, social service agencies, and government bureaucracies.

by Michael Morgan

For twelve years I have observed the workings of non-profits created to deal with homeless and/or low-income clients, at times as a client, at other times as an employee. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly (sometimes on the VCR on “movie night” at the shelter). But when I was hired by the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center (TREC), I expected only the good, given the warm, human, and progressive spirit of their mission statement and by-laws. What I experienced instead was the ugly, which is what non-profits that start out with good intentions become when they leave the path so beautifully described in their promotional literature, such as the following, which is posted on TREC’s website:

“Do not pass the library of my dreams. Come all ye who are weary, cold, and hungry. Drifters possessing nothing, the homeless. Enter the open portals to the young, old, disabled, forgotten. A rest stop of welcome comfort . . . .

But most of all, my brothers and sisters, those who enter please remember, ‘you must believe in love’ – the greatest healing power on our planet earth! So, hop aboard on the magical carpet to the library of my dreams. The ride is free to this open house dedicated to you, the homeless.”
-Excerpt from The Library of My Dreams by Virginia Blair: In dedication to the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center (TREC), Library for the homeless.

The above was written about TREC when it had a full homeless library located in the building next to Saint Bonaface Church. But, due to seismic retrofitting, TREC was forced to vacate that building. They could not find space large enough to set up another library, the books went into storage, and it was decided that the books would be handed out on the street, from a mobile cart.

I was hired, in August 2000, to man the maiden voyage of the Roving Library and to captain that tiny vessel through the seas of the Tenderloin. At the same time I was hired, a new director came on the scene. During our first meeting I told him of my plans to start a non-profit and he told me he was all for letting me use the non-profit status of TREC as an umbrella to run my group, and to let me use their meeting space to get the homeless together. After all, this is what TREC was set up for as evidenced by the following by-laws:


“At TREC we articulate the following goals:

Create community across boundaries of race, class, national origin, immigration status, gender and sexual orientation.

Integrate the insights and struggles of our daily encounters into a non-violent practice that challenges the marginalization of our constituents.

TREC Objectives and Purposes from the by laws.

Article 2, Section 1.


The primary activity of TREC shall be to create an interfaith learning and resource center for persons from diverse religious, cultural and economic backgrounds, but particularly for persons living in poverty in the inner city.

The Center will:

Provide on-going opportunities for social analysis and theological reflection;

Develop inclusive educational methodologies, particularly through small group process.

Sponsor public events, such as retreats, lectures, plays, readings, musical performances, and discussion forums;

Undertake additional educational and reflective projects which further these objectives.

The Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center invites you to join us at...

The People's Library, providing a haven from the streets and a friendly alternative to the public library for Tenderloin residents. 135 Golden Gate Avenue, 3rd Floor.

My official title was “Workshop Leader”, yet when I went with the director to the Foundation Center to learn how to write grants for my projects, I was introduced as “a volunteer”. At that moment I realized that the new director was playing military games, introducing competition where it did not belong. Instead of viewing me as the Captain of the Roving Library the new regime seemed to view me as just another drunken, homeless deck hand. The new director, who lived in the East Bay (not the Tenderloin) and was an art student at the Academy of Art, had been a life-long drill sergeant (therefore used to “subordinates” who had to follow his orders).

I also had just come on board as the Roving Librarian and told the director that I was expecting a lot of positive feedback behind the cart because I would be able to spend hours on the street giving out literature and chatting up people about social possibilities: “Whatever I really put my energy into leads to things jumping off right away. I don’t know why, but it does.”

When I said those words, the director flinched evasively, to try and figure out how to react to something so preposterous. What do you say to someone you can’t relate to (because you’ve “never stood in a food line” [his own words]) who is saying something you can’t relate to [because it never happens like that in your life])?

A week later, I ran into Allison Lum outside the Coalition on Homelessness. She had gotten the flier advertising the Roving Library printed in Street Sheet. The new TREC director and the editor for their poetry magazine were overjoyed when they saw our new venture advertised in a well-circulated newspaper.

I figured the office people would come around and that there really wasn’t much they could do to get in my way because I was the “Workshop Leader for the Roving Library”, a job I did alone. So I went about my business, and was doing my job, when a reporter from the Chronicle called to interview me after having seen the Street Sheet ad.

The people at TREC were already out of their league—homeless people learn to think and act on their feet and can actually make things happen faster than those who sit back in their offices and do paperwork. They were all excited, trying to figure out how to handle the Chron, though they did not have to worry, because the interview was with me. So I took the reporter out on my route with me and we did the story.

Another day, the Chron photographer came out and Saint Anthony’s almost had a hemorrhage, sending their public relations people and some supers down to stand around while we finished up—we had already almost finished when I asked the upstairs office if we could get access to their balcony to shoot a couple of overheads. They were concerned that the people in the line would not want their pictures taken, which we had already handled. Administrators think we can’t do anything on our own. (When I asked Saint Anthony’s for a place for the homeless to meet, they said they had no extra space currently).

After the Chron story came out TREC was called by Marla at Evening Magazine who came out and did a shoot. On the day of the shoot I woke up outside and went down to meet the camera crew. We arranged the shoot via a series of phone calls and emails between me and EM. On the day of the shoot, I woke up OUTSIDE due to the fucked up kinds of case managers the shelters have. But I still did the shoot and all follow-ups with Marla.

I went to the former director of TREC, who never visited the Roving Library except the day the reporter for the Chron showed (get it?. I said I wanted to confront the director and program manager over my issues but was told “That would be too confrontational”, and so agreed to present any complaints to the board in private. A key board member, who started TREC, also did nothing, promising to and then sending me an email that said “The director can make any decision he wants, the board can only make suggestions to him”.

It was during this time that the attitude at TREC obviously changed: my checks were hard to get (I told them to simply put them in a fixed location, which we agreed on but it never happened).

An idea I suggested to the previous director that we do an educational program through TREC, was not allowed to come to fruition because there was “no funding for that”, although I offered to set it going for free. The workshop I wanted to research and start was on having homeless people co me in and learn how to start and run their own non-profits and businesses. That idea is just plain unpopular with people who want to stay in charge of who gets the funding earmarked for the homeless.

The last straw was when I went in to TREC for my check but it wasn’t there. They only had two checks. So two guys who sit in the office and send me out get paid. The person who had the checks was flying around the world on a vacation. Does that sit well with you out there? Did it sit well with me that a homeless person cannot get his pay and the people living inside get paid. And I WAS NOT NOTIFIED ABOUT IT PERIOD!!!

SO, I QUIT. Later, the director had me go with him for coffee and told me that people were falling all over themselves to get to him asking,
“Who is this roving library guy?” So, he re-hired me.

But I never got back to work. (to be continued..)


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