Mayor Newsom announced when first elected that shelters were not fit places for humans to live, and that he would work toward the day when shelters would close. He announced plans for housing through his Care Not Cash program, promising homeless people keys and arranging several photo opportunities snapping pictures of him handing an impoverished individual a key. Four years later, the homeless population of the city is rising, but we’ve lost 370 shelter beds.
Increasing numbers of homeless people are reporting human rights abuses of all kinds. Access to basic hygiene supplies, such as toilet paper, and hand-washing soap has become almost obsolete. As abuse, problems with lack of hygiene, and more have been repeatedly reported to the City, the response has been indifference, inaction, and neglect. When this issue has been brought to the Mayor, he has used this as a reason to close more shelters. This has led to fear within the homeless community that efforts at shelter reform will simply result in fewer and fewer beds.
We cannot afford to lose one more shelter bed until every woman, man, and child has a safe place to call home. At the same time, those shelters must be a sanctuary from the daily trauma experienced by homeless people on the street—a place to give comfort and support through a frightening experience, and a place that can help move people into housing.
In research the Coalition on Homelessness has conducted over the past several months, we have found that for many homeless people, personal experience has been quite the opposite.
There are great examples of shelters in San Francisco that are doing a lot with very little, but these are the exceptions—not the rule. Those shelters doing the best job seem to be also the ones constantly targeted for closure by the City, while those guilty of human rights abuses continue to receive silent consent or open support and funding from the City.
In many ways our recent work around shelter reform took hold when we successfully organized for a Shelter Monitoring Committee that would conduct announced and unannounced visits to the shelters. This would provide a governmental source of information on shelter standards and operations, and this information would be reported to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors. Though the Monitoring Committee does not have the power to change a particular shelter, it is an invaluable source of information, and provides a foundation for fundamental changes in the shelter system.
Once the Monitoring Committee was up and running, we held community meetings with shelters residents off-site. We then gathered that input and found that the main areas of concern among residents were staff treatment, and health and hygiene issues. It was in these forums that the idea of a human rights survey was born: in order to call for human rights reforms, we needed first to document human rights abuses in San Francisco’s shelter system to determine whether and where abuse was present, and what its extent was. More importantly, we wanted to preserve and amplify the many, and so often invisible, voices of homeless men, women, and children residing in San Francisco’s shelters.
The information we uncovered in our human rights survey of 215 shelter residents was shocking and disgraceful. When we asked residents to self-identify any forms of abuse, 55% reported experiencing some form of abuse inside the shelter.
We also asked residents if overall they felt safe in the shelters. We were discouraged to find that one third (32%) of respondents reported that they did not feel safe.
Shelter staff are under-paid and overworked. Disagreements will arise, individuals are often in a state of panic, and homelessness is very stressful. Mistakes will happen, and this is to be expected. We were interested in finding out how the shelter responded when issues did arise. We asked respodents if shelters responded to their complaints and suggestions, and a large portion—one third (32%)—responded that they did not.
It is important to note that problems with mistreatment by staff came up throughout the survey. Homelessness is a situation in which all forms of oppression intersect: racial, disability, sexual orientation, gender, class, and others. All of these groups are discriminated against by society at large, and otherwise oppressed groups are overrepresented in the homeless population. San Francisco shelters should be a respite from the cruelty homeless people experience within the society at large. Instead, homeless people reported that many shelters reflected the same oppressive environment under their own roofs.
When we asked non-English-speakers if they received information in their own language, a third had not. This not only acts as a barrier to non-English-speakers from escaping the shackles of homelessness, but also makes it difficult for individuals to access the shelter system at all.
One of the many challenges homeless people face is difficulty in safeguarding their property. After losing your housing, you are left with a few precious items, be they photos of beloved family members, essential survival gear, or important papers crucial to garnering employment or housing. Having a secure place for your property is critical. When we asked shelter residents if the shelter provided a secure place for their property, 49% reported that they did not.
The cost of healthy food often forces poverty and poor diet to go hand in hand. The health impacts are often devastating and long-term. In a city as affluent as San Francisco, one would expect that nutritious and adequate food would be provided to shelter residents. This is not the case at all. When asked if their nutritional and dietary needs were being met by shelters, 54% responded that they were not.
The Shelter Monitoring Committee has been monitoring health and hygiene in City-funded shelters. They look for posters encouraging and showing proper hand-washing technique, accessible and working sinks, soap dispensers, disposable towels or dryers, and towels where showers are available. They found that of the 19 City shelters, only six met these basic requirements. The Shelter Monitoring Committee has found that many large urban shelters do not provide toilet paper inside stalls. Residents must request toilet paper from staff, and once inside the restroom, if they run short on toilet paper, they are out of luck. The Committee has urged the City to require that all shelters provide soap, towels or dryers, and toilet paper inside every bathroom. This is not the case in San Francisco. We asked indivuals if they had access to toilet paper and other basic hygiene items inside the shelters. Almost a third of respondents (27%) did not have access to toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, or soap in the bathrooms.
So what would a reformed human rights situation look like? We asked shelter residents, and their responses were diverse, eloquent, and pointed: 45% cited treatment with dignity by staff as a top priority. 24% wanted better access to services. 17% needed freedom from overcrowding.
The Coalition is going to move forward to get basic standards and human rights legislated into the City Charter. We want it to have teeth and to ensure accountability. We need a foundation of dignity and respect in San Francisco for our poorest residents. The men, women, and children experiencing the housing crisis in our city deserve no less.