A couple of days after Christmas a woman, who was a registered nurse and a homeless resident of Next Door Shelter, sent an email to STREET SHEET / Coalition on Homelessness requesting some help raising money to purchase medical supplies for the shelter. Next Door, on the corner of Geary and Polk Streets, is one of the city’s big shelters.
Perhaps people know it by its former name, Multi Service Center-North (MSC-North). It is a temporary home for 280 residents where case management and medical respite services are supposed to be provided. Episcopal Community Services, ECS, is the non-profit agency that is funded by the city to operate Next Door Shelter.
The nurse’s email told about a tragic incident that happened at the shelter at 6:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve. Melinda Lindsey, a 43-year old resident with a history of heart problems, went into cardiac arrest and required emergency medical attention. Unfortunately, none of the staff on duty at the time were able or willing to perform CPR, so the nurse, a fellow shelter resident (who does not want us to publicly use her name), performed CPR on Melinda until the paramedics arrived. There were no AED defibrillators or any other standard emergency medical supplies such as gloves, CPR face masks, or anything whatsoever available at the time. Sadly, Melinda Lindsey was pronounced dead a short while later. It is not clear if ECS is legally required by the City to have emergency equipment available in its medical facilities after business hours. One thing is certain however—they did not have it on the day that Melinda died there.
Following the death, Melinda’s body was left laying on the floor for two hours with a blanket thrown over it. About twenty women reported being very upset by the way the staff handled this death. They described several staff people saying things like, “People die… get over it.” Her bed was rolled up like she was never even there and there was no acknowledgment of her passing in any sensitive or respectful way. Melinda’s daughter called the shelter that night from Monterrey asking why her mom had not arrived home for the holiday yet and had to be told by Melinda’s friend in the shelter, Yalaanda Elsberry, that her mom was dead. Yalaanda said that Melinda’s daughter reported trying to contact the shelter about it but all they would tell her was, “She’s not here.”
A few days later the shelter director, Linzie Coleman, held a “grief counseling” meeting for the women involved. Residents said that during that time they were intimidated and threatened not to tell anyone about this event. Ms. Coleman reportedly warned them: “I only have one more year until I retire, so there is no reason to go to any outside organizations with this.” When the nurse asked about the total absence of emergency supplies (such as an AED defibrillator), Coleman suggested that the residents form a committee to see if they could get some supplies donated because the shelter couldn’t afford to buy any. Approximately 20 women verified that this was indeed what happened. They all reported being intimidated by Coleman not to make waves about the death.
The residents did form a committee. The committee members wrote letters to medical supply companies and other organizations to solicit donations. They sent a message to the Coalition in this process. They were trying to get a defibrillator donated so deaths could be prevented in the future. Coalition representatives contacted the nurse who sent them the letter describing the Melinda’s death and told the shelter residents’ committee about the city’s Shelter Monitoring Committee (SMC). The SMC was created by legislation and its purpose is to monitor shelters that are funded by the City to assure they are doing what they are supposed to do. The Coalition also created a press release and notified news organizations. Stories about Melinda’s death were carried by Channel 2 and Channel 7 on January 4, 2006 at 10:00. The SF Bay Guardian also covered this tragedy (Guardian, January 18-24, 2006. Vol. 40, No. 6). It has been creating quite a scandal among shelter administrators, residents and city departments.
Ken Reggio, the executive director of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), stated that all staff are trained in CPR. The reason they did not perform it on the dying woman and relied on a shelter resident to take charge of the emergency is currently under investigation by ECS and the Human Services Agency.
The Shelter Monitoring Committee performed an emergency inspection of Next Door Shelter a few days after the news reports and found that there were still absolutely no first aid kits or emergency medical supplies available anywhere in the shelter that is home to 280 homeless people. Staff were unable to produce even a band aid or antibiotic ointment, even on the respite, or medical, floor.
Abuse at Next Door is Old News
People routinely come into the Coalition to complain of treatment they have received at the hands of Next Door administrators. For anyone who works in the homeless services community, this is no surprise. It seems quite ordinary and part of standard operating procedure that has been acknowledged by residents, visitors, case managers, line staff, social workers, and medical personnel.
Coalition staff have been berated and verbally abused by Next Door’s Linzie Coleman and her minions when trying to represent clients in the shelter.
The most common problem the Coalition faces is getting someone who is willing to go public and blow the whistle on the unethical practices of the management there. Residents are afraid of retaliation by shelter staff if they complain, and case managers (many of whom have spoken off the record with Coalition staff) are afraid of losing their jobs if they address the grievous mismanagement going on there. It is no secret. The emperor (or empress) has no clothes.
The women who were brave enough come forward and publicly testify at the Shelter Monitoring Committee and to the news media about the way they are being treated at Next Door Shelter are truly heroines. They have reported that many shelter staff are thanking them for blowing the whistle, and that many staff have been upset about the shelter for a long time.
Out of Melinda Lindsey’s tragic and perhaps preventable death, hopefully some good can come. Maybe the city departments that fund Episcopal Community Services to operate a medical facility will demand that the bare minimum of first aid supplies and training be made available at Next Door. Do not let Melinda die in vain. Use this opportunity to prevent future deaths.
The Coalition on Homelessness is demanding a full investigation of this incident to prevent its repetition in the future. The Coalition is also calling for immediate suspension of the Next Door shelter director Linzie Coleman during the investigation. Further, the Coalition on Homelessness demands that Next Door shelter treat people, including their staff, with the dignity and respect they deserve by making emergency first aid kits available in the shelter immediately. There is no excuse for not having first aid supplies available in a place where many people work and 280 people sleep each night. What if someone gets injured in the kitchen? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have band aids and burn cream?
If people are concerned that homeless people are dying on the streets and in the shelters for lack of basic medical supplies, they can contact the Human Services Agency / Department of Human Services and ask them to perform a thorough investigation of these events.
They can contact Trent Rhorer at: 557.5000 / firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dariush Kayhan at: 558.1954 / email@example.com.
How many more people have to die before basic medical supplies are provided?
If Episcopal Community Services can’t assure the safety of residents it is paid to protect, then maybe the City should consider finding a non profit service provider that can.
Rest in Peace Melinda Lindsey.