Homeless people are among the most disenfranchised and oppressed groups in our society nationwide. The lack of stable housing and the public exposure of every aspect of one’s life deepen and increase the impact of discriminations based on race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, sex, or immigration status. From our inception through the present, the Coalition on Homelessness has made itself a reputation as a defender of poor people’s rights.
Homeless people are subjected to harassment through the criminal justice system because of their status. It is virtually impossible to sleep anywhere without breaking the law. Other life-sustaining activities are also penalized. Since 1995, the Coalition on Homelessness has provided access to legal representation to thousands of individuals who would otherwise have jeopardized their right to due process.
1995 – 2005
The City of San Francisco issued 167,074 citations for so-called “quality-of-life” offenses, fur crimes such as sleeping in public spaces, blocking the sidewalk, and panhandling. The Coalition on Homelessness, in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and many volunteer attorneys, was able to provide legal assistance to 13,619 of those cases.
Due to the work of the Coalition, the District Attorney’s office dropped over 39,000 citations and attached warrants given to homeless people during former Mayor Jordan’s Matrix program.
The Coalition took on 1,795 cases for homeless individuals who had no other options for legal representation. Over 90% of these case were dismissed or had their fines reduced.
The COH has taken over 1,400 cases so far this year, and has had an 80% success rate.
The Street Watch has been a vital tool to document abuses by police officers, mass displacements (the so-called “sweeps”), and illegal property confiscation by the Police Department and the Department of Public Works.
For instance, since 1988, seven major operations have been launched to get homeless people out of Golden Gate Park alone. Similar operations have been conducted on a regular basis throughout the city, particularly in the Bayview/Hunter’s Point and Mission districts. Coalition staff and volunteers, armed with cameras and forms to collect declarations from those who were being displaced, were able to minimize the impact of such operations on homeless people.
Organizing efforts among communities of homeless people resulted in the design of a vehicularly housed community in China Basin.
Organizing work prevented the approval of legislation that would have increased the penalties for possessing a shopping cart.
We work to see the day when no one will have to call a shelter home. In the meantime, we also fight to make sure that shelters are clean, safe, and respectful of the rights of their residents.
The COH designed and advocated for the creation of the McMillan Center at 39 Fell Street (a facility better known by its address), an innovative 24-hour drop-in facility for substance users, which reduced the number of street deaths.
Shelter clients now have the opportunity to appeal proposed disciplinary actions against them through an impartial appeals process. The Uniform Grievance Procedure was developed in collaboration with other organizations and is funded by the City to ensure shelter residents are not unfairly evicted from shelters, and are treated in an unbiased manner.
The COH advocated for and designed A Woman’s Place, a drop-in center, shelter, and transitional housing program now assisting mentally disabled women, through the convening of the Homeless Women’s Task Force.
The Coalition wrote and successfully advocated for adoption of a “No Turn Away” policy for families seeking emergency shelter in San Francisco. This policy guaranteed at-risk families access to City-provided shelter.
The COH chaired the Single Adult Shelter Re-Design committee of the Continuum of Care. A set of recommendations emerged with unanimous support from all shelter directors, alongside residents and advocates, including longer stays in shelters, a Shelter Monitoring Committee, standardized intake, and more.
The Coalition led the work that created the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (MNRC), the first resource center in the Mission District with a focus on cultural competency. The MNRC provides multiple services to over 100 mostly Latino clients every day.
Shelter Monitoring Committee legislation passed and the Committee formed. This committee tracks conditions in shelters and reports to the Board of Supervisors. This work has resulted in the exposure and correction of countless problems in the shelter system, resulting in more humane, livable conditions for all shelter residents.
Twice in two consecutive years the Human Services Agency tried to shut down the city’s only 24/7 drop-in center for homeless people. Advocacy efforts led by the COH saved the McMillan Center (see above)—later converted to Buster’s Place—from permanent closure.
The COH released Shelter Shock: Abuse, Cruelty, and Neglect in San Francisco’s Shelters. This report formed the foundation of a movement of having minimum standards of care in the shelter system, and helped push the Department of Public Health to pilot a project to ensure basic hygiene features in the two largest City-funded shelters.