SAN FRANCISCO—Traveling from as far away as park benches on the other side of town, hundreds of rabid temporary housing enthusiasts lined up overnight Friday in hopes of being among the first admitted to the city's newest homeless shelter.
"I got here around 3 a.m., and already there was a crowd of people slumped over out front," said Jerome Ashford, a die-hard fan of having a roof over his head. "I had a feeling it was going to be popular, but this turnout—it's just insane. If I can't get in tonight, I don't know what I'll do."
Since last Tuesday, men and women of all ages have left the familiar comforts of air-conditioned bus stations and ATM lobbies to brave the elements outside the much-anticipated Mission District shelter. While most arrive with nothing more than three partially smoked cigarettes and a slice of bologna wrapped in a handkerchief, others have come fully prepared for the long wait with shopping carts full of supplies.
"I haven't been this excited since the bakery down the street threw out an entire trash bag of bagels," said Lawrence Jones, who took the week off from collecting aluminum cans and selling his plasma to a nearby blood bank to wait outside the shelter. "Sure, I haven't showered in a public fountain in days, and I miss the warmth of my alleyway back home, but in the end, it'll all be worth it."
Although the prospect of sleeping outdoors for nothing more than the most basic of human necessities might seem extreme to some, many in attendance say they've been looking forward to the shelter's grand opening since first reading about it beneath a blanket of newspapers.
"I started begging for subway fare the moment I heard the news," said Wendy Slovic, 41, adding that there was "no way" she could wait a couple of weeks for the crowds to thin out. "Say whatever you want, but I wouldn't trade my place in line for all the scratch tickets in the world."
For some, the anticipation of lying on a cot or having three meals a day is so great that blacking out at night has become an almost impossible task. Still many others, who have been eagerly counting down the days since fishing an old wall calendar from a dumpster, can hardly put their growing elation into words.
"Where is my soul, they took my soul away," said Michael "Bone" Zahn, who for the last week hasn't left his place at the front of the line even to use the restroom. "Broken windows like spiderwebs, a stone on a rocking chair, rain rain rain rain—begone, you cloth demons!"
Among the clamoring mass of refuge fanatics, the most devoted arrived early Sunday morning in full costume, including old shopping bags that had been fashioned into makeshift footwear and heavy ash-colored makeup covering their faces and hands. Some even carried a variety of creative signs with them.
"Back when I started lining up to get into shelters, there were only 10 or 15 of us at most," said Samuel Robins, 63, gesturing at the teeming crowd of shelter enthusiasts on hand. "To see how far things have come in the last decade alone. It's unbelievable really."
"Many of the kids here today weren't even alive when the first shelter was built on this street," Robins added.
Despite the growing excitement, a number of mega-fans who have spent the last week sleeping in front of the shelter, and the week before that sleeping behind the shelter, said they are trying to keep their already high expectations in check.
"I know it probably won't live up to the picture I have in my head, but it's still hard not to get your hopes up," harmonica musician Johnnie Brooklyn, 39, said. "You want it to be amazing—for there to be hot food on hand, maybe even hot water—but at the same time, you have to be realistic about these sorts of things."
"Man, hot water would be nice, though," Brooklyn added.
While the mob scene in front of the shelter has caused a few minor disruptions, including one incident in which a passerby was asked for spare change 143 consecutive times, only a handful of residents have reacted negatively to the swelling crowds.
"To be honest, I feel sorry for them," said Beverly Sherman, an administrative coordinator for Wells Fargo Bank. "To have so little in your life that you think nothing of camping out on the streets for days on end—it's depressing."
Added Sherman: "Seriously, these people need help."