SAN FRANCISCO, OCT. 26 -- The old Camelot Hotel where Robert Cooper lived began to fall apart soon after the earthquake Oct. 17, so he began his melancholy odyssey in search of a cot each night. He found one in the cavernous Moscone Center where the Democratic Party held its 1984 national convention, on the flight deck of the Navy helicopter carrier USS Peleliu in San Francisco Bay and finally today at an empty, dirty-carpeted office building. "I feel that I've just been part of a herd of cattle," said Cooper, an unemployed cook, standing on Polk Street outside the building and talking with his equally homeless friend, Audren Mark, about when it might end. The news for them and thousands of others like them is not good. After years with one of the nation's tightest housing markets and most insoluble problems of homelessness, the San Francisco Bay area has found its small supply of low-cost housing substantially reduced. The quake has forced thousands of people into shelters or the streets for months or years to come. The state Office of Emergency Service has reported more than 13,000 homeless from the quake, although several officials said the figure may be larger. Housing experts here said the disaster has doubled or tripled the number of Bay area homeless, estimated at about 5,000 to 10,000 before the quake. At the same time, the quake has created an unusual bond between poor people, who for years have been shuttled between shelters and skid-row hotels, and large numbers of more-affluent residents suddenly without homes for the first time. "The quake has been indiscriminate in destroying both the mansions of Los Gatos and the low-income housing of a lot of poor people," said Barry Del Buono, executive director of the southern Bay area's Emergency Housing Consortium. "I hope it has the result that people are more sympathetic to the homeless, that we don't have so much 'not-in-my-neighborhood' " about homeless shelters, he said. The size of the new homeless problem has become clearer only as building inspectors continue to find damage requiring evacuations miles from the most-devastated neighborhoods. Tom Jones, a housing consultant to San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, said attention focused on the Marina district for the first few days after the tremor because of spectacular fires and gasline ruptures that forced wholesale evacuations. "But the Marina district now represents only one quarter of the housing stock that had to be evacuated -- a total of 5,000 buildings with 12,000 to 14,000 housing units," Jones said. In Oakland, City Council member Wilson Riles Jr. referred to a "very difficult, difficult problem" of low-cost, unreinforced brick apartment buildings and hotels that "will not be replaced in the housing market." Oakland has about 2,500 people displaced by the quake, at least doubling the usual number of homeless, but has only 500 regular shelter beds, supplemented temporarily by 700 Red Cross quake-relief shelter beds in local schools and colleges. "I got some cots over at the King School," said Gloria Barrett, newly homeless in Oakland when her apartment building was condemned. "But it's really too crowded and noisy for me and the children." Jones said he counted at least 1,200 low-cost apartments and residence-hotel rooms in San Francisco lost to the quake. "Long term, we have taken a real blow," he said. Even more housing may be lost, he said, if building owners succumb to the temptation to use the quake as an excuse to rid themselves of poor tenants and find a more profitable use for their property. "We've had a couple of tenants calling and saying they have been evicted" from buildings not condemned, Jones said. Under San Francisco law, buildings are freed from rent-control restrictions if demolished, and former tenants have no automatic right to space in reconstructed quarters. The city government has attempted to down-zone several low-rent neighborhoods in recent years, however, to prevent redevelopment that would increase homelessness. In the southern communities of Watsonville and Santa Cruz near the quake's epicenter, there are fewer protections for old housing stock. Tent cities sprouting in Watsonville and several demolitions in Santa Cruz have dramatized the growing problems of the displaced. Officials have had little luck talking Watsonville's homeless into regular shelters, even though their temporary lodgings are unhealthy and dangerous. Several expensive homes have been severely damaged or are threatened. In Los Altos Hills, where the average house costs $750,000 to $1 million, officials have estimated $10 million worth of damage to about 30 homes. Residents of the Villa del Monte neighborhood in the Santa Cruz Mountains have learned their houses may be in a new landslide zone. But Del Buono noted that the more-affluent owners seem confident about financing repairs and that those rendered temporarily homeless would be eligible for federal assistance. In Washington today, President Bush signed legislation that will provide an additional $2.85 billion for federal disaster relief. Stanford University provided an example of quick adjustments by the affluent homeless. The university converted study halls and guest rooms and asked some students to double up in order to house 217 displaced students. Several homeless students have indicated that they can afford to move to off-campus apartments. In a metropolitan area where the median home price in September was $266,000, real estate agents have expressed uncertainty about whether the quake would discourage potential buyers. But few deals have fallen through, agents report, and open houses last weekend were surprisingly well attended. It will be a long time before Cooper, contemplating life outside his new temporary shelter at 1001 Polk, will have enough money to buy anything. Most of his clothes, except for the jeans, red sweatshirt and Marine cap he has worn since the quake, were back at his crumbling residential hotel, irretrievable for the moment. "It's really hard to keep my spirits up, it's all so confusing," he said. His only recent job, as a desk clerk at the Camelot, ended with the quake. His friend Mark, trained as an insurance-claims adjuster, has no chance of finding work while he has no telephone or fixed address. Both have applied for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but do not know when it will come or in what form. Del Buono said the area's chronic housing shortage has posed a problem for FEMA officials. "They have to try to differentiate between the quake-victim homeless and the pre-quake homeless," he said, an exercise that underlines in his mind the inadequacy of federal response to homelessness in general. Cooper said he simply wants to get off his post-quake treadmill. He found the Moscone Center, jammed with a 1,000 displaced people in varying stages of rage, somewhat frightening. The USS Peleliu had good food, he said, but the flight deck was cold. The empty office building temporarily obtained by the Red Cross may be better insulated, but the atmosphere is the same. "A few cattle in that room, a few more in this room," Cooper said. "That's the way this goes." These organizations are seeking monetary donations to help victims of the California earthquake: American Jewish World Service, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10104, 212-468-7380. American Red Cross Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013, 202-639-3144, or local Red Cross chapters. Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, Ind. 46515, 212-870-3151. Direct Relief International, 2801-B De La Vina St., Santa Barbara, Calif. 93105, 805-687-3694. Feed the Children, 333 N. Meridian, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73101, 405-942-0228. National Catholic Disaster Relief Committee, 1319 F St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20004. Operation California/USA, 7615 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 90046, 213-658-8876. Presiding Bishop's Fund/Episcopal Church, 815 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 800-334-7626. Salvation Army, through local units or Salvation Army National Headquarters, 799 Bloomfield Ave., Verona, N.J., 07044. World Relief, P.O. Box WRC, Wheaton, Ill. 60188, 312-665-0235. World Vision, 919 West Huntington Dr., Monrovia, Calif. 91016, 818-357-7979.
Jay Mathews Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He created the annual Challenge Index rankings of high schools and has written nine books.