On May 16, the Coalition On Homelessness hosted a press conference on the steps of City Hall to release the report Shelter Shock: Abuse, Cruelty, and Neglect in San Francisco’s Shelter System (1.3 MB PDF). A large crowd gathered around to support presenters, including Supervisor Tom Ammiano and recent shelter residents Chanel Kennedy and Tomas Picarello. The master of ceremonies was Lisa Gray-Garcia, author of Criminal of Poverty (Street Sheet review) and editor of POOR Magazine.
The report surveys 215 residents of the shelter system who expressed their views about living conditions in those City-funded facilities. The findings cover three major issue areas—barriers to access, abuse and cruelty, and health and hygiene—and makes concrete recommendations for reform. Findings mirror those of other independent and government sources, including the Shelter Monitoring Committee and the Mayor’s Office on Disability.
San Francisco provides funding to non-profit organizations to operate shelters, and owns the buildings of three of the largest shelters (Next Door, Multi-Service Center South, and Hamilton Family Center). An astounding 55% of shelter residents report experiencing some form of abuse in the shelter system. Most of the City shelters fail to provide a healthy and hygienic environment, with two thirds failing to provide residents with basic hygiene products such as toilet paper and hand soap. Overall, the findings point to the system’s failure to provide a safe refuge for some of the most vulnerable San Franciscans.
Mayor Newsom has repeatedly claimed that addressing homelessness is his top priority. Yet, in addition to failing to address the terrible conditions that persist in the existing beds, the administration has eliminated more than 360 beds, while thousands of homeless people remain on the streets.
While the Board and Mayor have not taken any steps to correct this horrendous situation, it is not too late to act: The Coalition on Homelessness is calling for legislation that that would establish a minimum standard of care in our shelter system. This legislation would require immediate correction of the problem, and sanctions would apply if the situation were not remedied. Many cities and states, such as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, have enacted minimum standards of decency for shelter residents. The Coalition on Homelessness believes the City and County of San Francisco’s political leadership must do the same. This would end shelter shock for the thousands of individuals and families in this city who are trying to survive without affordable housing.
Jenny Friedenbach, Organizing Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said, “It would be far too easy to blame front-line staff at shelters for the current horror inside San Francisco’s shelters. That would be a mistake. There are hard-working, dedicated, and compassionate staff working in shelters making the best of a bad situation. We believe the true fault lies in the lapse of City administrators and policy-makers who for far too long have allowed this outrageous situation to go unchecked. [We] need to move beyond simply talking about toilet paper, soap, and abuse. We need to stop closing shelter beds until every human being has a home and is fully protected from the devastation of homelessness. Lastly, we must act now to transform our shelter system into a sanctuary where everyone lives with the dignity they deserve as human beings.”
Supervisor Tom Ammiano stated that he and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors were appalled by the reports brought to them by the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which consistently finds egregious conditions in many of the largest City-funded shelters.
According to Ammiano, matters have been made worse by the apparent disregard of City agencies and contractors for those affected by the problems disclosed by such reports. Ammiano pointed to the fact that currently there are no uniform standards of service against which to measure the performance of the shelters. He announced his intention to introduce legislation that would create a Single Standard of Care for the Shelter System and demand accountability from those receiving City funds to provide services to the homeless population.
According to recent shelter resident Chanel Kennedy, “When injustice strikes, we strike back. The Board of Supervisors and Mayor need to pass standard of care legislation that ensures the protection of the human rights of shelter residents. A cavalier stroll toward the issue is not good enough—we recommend that you run!”
Asked about the failures of the shelter system unveiled by the report, Trent Rhorer, Director of the Human Service Agency, which administers all shelter contracts, indicated that the City would continue to ignore the problem. “The size of the sample represents less than 1% of the homeless population,” which would put the total numbers of such population at 21,500—more than three times again the numbers acknowledged by the City on its most recent homeless count. At a confidence level of 95%, the Coalition’s data can be considered ±6% accurate, meaning that 49-61% oof shelter residents have experienced personal abuse.
Mr. Rohrer went on to affirm that his department conducts regular reviews of customer satisfaction that showed, “80% of the residents are satisfied with the services they receive.” These surveys were conducted with staff supervision. The Human Services Agency was unable to provide the sample size for Mr. Rhorer’s figure.