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San Francisco’s shelters (finally) get public oversight

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Talk to anyone who works or has stayed in homeless shelters here in the city and they will describe situations and experiences that are cause for concern. The quality of services provided varies widely from shelter to shelter. There is huge inconsistency in the way shelter residents and staff are treated. Front line staff routinely report difficulties with management and management tends to have a dysthymic relationship with city departments, such as the Department of Human Services which is responsible for the shelters and resource centers. Despite being a common sense, practical way of providing accurate, unbiased information about what is really going on behind closed shelter doors, the Shelter Monitoring Committee (SMC) legislation has been a long time in coming.

The need for a monitoring committee has been well documented over the past 17 years. In March 1988 the administration of Mayor Art Agnos established the need for accountability mechanisms in homeless programs and policy with its “Master Plan on Homelessness.” The “Twelve Point Homeless Plan” was passed shortly thereafter. That legislation authorized the establishment of a shelter monitoring committee by which the effectiveness of shelter programs could be evaluated and assessed. Since then there have been many meetings and discussions with subsequent mayoral regimes about establishing the committee but no concrete steps were made to actually formalize it until now. The reasons for this are many, not the least of which is the fact that homelessness is so politically charged in this town that bureaucrats who have made profitable careers managing services to the ever present homeless population are very threatened by an objective, impartial organization that can potentially assess how ineffective their costly efforts actually are.

The “Continuum of Care” five year homeless plan further mandated that a monitoring committee be formed. Just before leaving office, Supervisor Matt Gonzales sponsored legislation that officially established the Shelter Monitoring Committee. It passed the Board of Supervisors in November, 2004 with only Supervisor Sean Elsnberg voting against it.

For the last several years the Shelter Services Committee (part of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board) has been monitoring shelters and resource centers. However, it lacks the explicit, written, legislative component that would hold persons and agencies responsible for addressing problems. This is the big difference between the these two committees: The Shelter Monitoring Committee has teeth.

Consider this:

  • The City spends $19 million annually on the shelter system, yet frequently ignores or neglects complaints about it.
  • Shelter residents currently have no real recourse to address conditions or situations that violate their health, safety or dignity and their concerns have been continuously ignored.
  • There is no mechanism of accountability in shelters that holds programs and individuals directly responsible.
  • There is no method of systematic inclusion of client and front-line staff testimony when reviewing shelter performance.
  • The Shelter Monitoring Committee (SMC) consists of 13 members from the following categories: homeless or formerly homeless, disabled, homeless with a child or children, direct service provider, advocate, one representative from the Department of Human Services (DHS) and one from the Department of Public Health (DPH). The Mayor appointed three members, including the DHS and DPH positions. The Local Homeless Coordinating Board appointed four members and the Board of Supervisors appointed six.

    What Will It Do?

    The SMC will monitor and report on homeless shelters and resource centers funded in whole or in part by the City. It will have one paid, full-time staff person who will receive and document complaints made to the SMC. The SMC will report directly to the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, the public and any other appropriate agency to provide unbiased, accurate, comprehensive information about the conditions in and operations of shelters and resource centers. The SMC is authorized to make announced and unannounced site visits to shelters in order to gather information on health and safety conditions, cleanliness, disability access to and within the shelter, family life in the shelter, the adequacy of policies and procedures governing each facility, and the treatment and personal experience of shelter residents. The SMC members will meet directly with shelter residents to provide them the opportunity to discuss their concerns. The SMC will prepare and submit quarterly as well as emergency reports and make recommendations for action to improve the conditions of the shelters. All information gathered will be made public and the agencies responsible will be held accountable.

    The SMC will be able to make emergency reports at any time it deems necessary and provide them to the public and media. The legislation reads, Any city department identified in the report as responsible to take action recommended in the report shall, within 30 days of issuance of the report, provide the Board of Supervisors a departmental report setting forth how the department intends to respond to the Committees recommendations. This process assures that there is a way to formally track problems and make sure that they get addressed and taken care of, something that is not currently established. All SMC reports will respect the confidentiality of shelter residents who provide information. Retaliation against shelter staff and residents who participate with the committee is explicitly prohibited.

    All meetings of the SMC are open to the public. Shelter residents are welcome and encouraged to attend and directly participate in the meetings as well as other activities of the committee. Anyone interested in finding out more can read the legislation online by going here and scrolling down to the SMC ordinance, which is file number 041449, number 283-04. Click on 283-04 and download the exact text.

    There are many longstanding problems in our shelters, as people who work or stay in them can testify. If the departments responsible for managing and maintaining the shelters had an effective monitoring system in place there would be no need for this committee. If the concerns of shelter residents were taken seriously and responded to by the bureaucrats and shelter operators then this committee would not be required. Given that there are seniors, disabled people and families with children staying in the shelters, it is important that these groups have their special needs attended to. The Shelter Monitoring Committee is a vehicle by which clients can get redress for things that have happened to them in the shelters and staff can have their concerns represented as well.

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    Author: Street Sheet Editor

    The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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