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Why are elderly homeless sleeping in chairs at night?

Leila Day


If you walk upstairs from the kitchen at Mother Brown’s drop-in center in the evening, you’ll find dozens of people sleeping in chairs. During the day, Mother Brown’s serves home-cooked meals to the homeless in San Francisco’s Bayview district. There are over a thousand people without homes in Bayview -- the second-highest homeless population in the city. But there’s not one shelter. So for more than a decade, Mother Brown’s has been offering chairs. Now they want to offer beds.

“I’m talking 100 beds -- I’m not trying to solve the homeless problem," says Gwendolyn Westbrook. "They need to be able to lie down and go to sleep.” Westbrook is CEO of the United Council of Human Services, the organization that runs Mother Brown’s. And she says getting those beds hasn’t been easy. Some members of the community say sanctioned sleeping would make the neighborhood less safe. So for now, the chairs are still everywhere.


Sleeping sitting up

“Sleeping in a chair, after a while the body gets adjusted,” says Minerva Dunn. She's 84 years old, and homeless. Almost every day, she comes to Mother Brown’s, and at night, she sleeps there -- in a plastic chair, in a room with around 50 other men and women. She's had this routine for more than two years now. She says people here not only respect her, but they also respect the rules.

“No cursing and profanity in the facility was one of her orders, and recently I heard some cursing and I said, listen brothers is it necessary that you can talk without that profanity? Because Mother Brown would be turning around in her grave.”

Dunn’s talking about Barbara Brown, who founded this center in 1972 and was given the name "Mother Brown" by the homeless people she prepared southern-style meals for. She used to hand those meals out from the back of her Cadillac Seville. Brown passed away in 2006, but her tradition has carried on. Today, some of those same home-cooked meals are served in the Mother Brown’s food line: greens, cornbread, chicken and salad.

Tonight, like every other night, the crew will serve about 170 meals, in three or four rounds. During the last dinner setting, Nole Robinson, the evening supervisor, goes upstairs to prepare the room for the people who will sleep here tonight.

“The procedure is that when we let them in at seven they are going to sign off into this computer area, proceed to this area and they are going to put their chairs in the area,” Robinson explains.

There are three open areas here on the second floor above the kitchen, where people can choose to put their chairs.

On the night KALW was at the center, about thirty people arrived for the night. They grabbed brown plastic chairs from a stack and quickly moved them into the best position.

Most people put their chairs in the room with a giant flat screen TV.  In the back of the room is a man in his early 40’s sitting alone. Asked what it’s like sleeping in a chair, he responds: “Horrible. It’s impossible really your arms go numb your feet go numb.”

He doesn’t want to say his name -- he says that he knows that he won’t be in this situation one day and he doesn’t like the idea that anyone could find out that he’s been homeless for more than two years.  It happened gradually, he says. He didn’t manage his money right. Spent too much on things he couldn’t afford, and eventually lost everything.  

“Nobody actually would want to go through this, but it’s part of life, you know. It’s part of life. You put your life back together and rebuild what you lost," he says. "Sometimes it’s just mentally going through it day to day but the worst part of it is sleeping in these chairs.”


A bed can be hard to find

In 2012, the mayor’s office announced a million dollar grant to build a shelter that would be an extension of Mother Brown’s and accommodate 100 beds. But a few months later, the project was postponed. Some neighborhood business owners were concerned about having a shelter nearby. For one thing, they said the area was zoned for light industrial -- not for residences. They also said there were safety and security issues. Bottom line, they didn’t want a shelter next to their businesses. BevanDufty is the city’s Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement  -- known as HOPE. He says the city’s trying to work with Mother Brown’s, and address business owners’ concerns.

“I’m hopeful as we work through this that there are some people who are opposed to it that may change their position," he says. "But ultimately the mayor’s responsibility is to do what’s right for the city and for the 1200 unsheltered individuals in the Bayview right now."

Dufty says that even though the plan has been postponed, it’s still on track, and Mother Brown’s should get its hundred beds within a year.

Neighbor Sarah Weber, who lives across the street, says she’s ok with that, “I feel safer on this particular corner than I do a few blocks away where they have liquor stores, instead of a homeless shelter. And Mother Brown's is part of the community.”

No one at any businesses in the area would go on tape opposing the project.


Why are elderly homeless sleeping in chairs at night?


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.