After two years of hard work by the Coalition on Homelessness and its allies, the Board of Supervisors voted nine to two to pass groundbreaking legislation creating standards in the shelter system. The legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Tom Ammiano and co-sponsored by Supervisors Mirkarimi, Peskin, and Sandoval requires, among other things, that shelters maintain their facilities, ensure that there are clean sheets, towels and blankets, supply nutritious food for the residents, and provide training for staff.
In May of 2007, the Coalition on Homelessness released a report entitled Shelter Shock (1.4 Mb PDF) regarding abuse, cruelty, and neglect in San Francisco’s shelters. The report captured the voices of shelter residents and their experiences and found that 55% of shelter residents experienced some form of abuse within the local system. The Shelter Monitoring Committee, through its inspections of shelter facilities, found that less than one third of San Francisco’s shelters met basic hygiene standards. The Mayor’s Office on Disability reported that a full quarter of its complaints came from shelter residents. Based on the report findings, the Coalition outlined recommendations to create a standard of care in San Francisco’s shelters. The ideas came directly from residents, and reflected the ongoing struggle of living in a shelter and what changes would make substantive differences in residents’ lives. A look at both our own findings and those of governmental sources indicated that we had a major problem in the shelters. This problem was compounded by the Newsom administration’s denial that these problems even existed.
Through a truly community-based process, hundreds of people provided input and worked on the legislation, with a large portion of the work being done in the Shelter Monitoring Committee Standard of Care work group. Shelter providers, the Human Services Agency, the Department of Public Health, Disease Control, Worker Occupational Safety, and TB Control also had a voice in the process.
As the legislation was picking up broad support within the homeless community, among service providers, and from members of the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor’s office sent a letter in opposition. They stated it was too expensive based on inflated costs provided by the Human Services Agency. We worked hard to debunk those inflated costs with the Budget Analyst and, in the end, the Mayor was forced to support the legislation if for no other reason then that there were enough votes to override a veto.
The legislation follows standards that are set in place for other congregate living facilities and has a strong focus on health. These standards will not only ensure basic rights, but also assist in containing the spread of illness and disease. After all, with large numbers of people living in confined spaces, health should be of the utmost concern. When residents don’t have access to so basic a necessity as toilet paper, and do not have soap to wash their hands, the spread of disease is an obvious outcome. When residents don’t have nutritious meals, their health falters.
The passage of this legislation is a major victory for homeless people and the Coalition on Homelessness. It would be the third major systemic change in the shelter system realized by this homeless people’s organization. The first victory was the passage of the shelter advocate program, which ensures due process when individuals are put out of shelters, and the second was the creation of the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which monitors shelter conditions and advises the Board of Supervisors. This legislation will strengthen the Shelter Monitoring Committee, as it will now have standards by which to measure the conditions of shelters, and the ability to recommend fines for the Department of Public Health to carry out if a non-compliant shelter does not take corrective action. Although first drafts of the legislation called for the Shelter Monitoring Committee to levy fines, that was found to be illegal by the City Attorney at the last minute. In that version, organizations could appeal fines to the Human Services Agency. Now Public Health, which is much more independent from political winds then the Human Services Agency, and levies fines in other situations for health code violations, will be the department fining agencies for non-compliance.
It is our hope there will be no fines, as the shelters have the opportunity to take corrective action before it gets to that place. “In the past, people have not been treated well; they leave and don’t come back,” said Quentin Mecke, of the Shelter Monitoring committee. “This will provide incentives for people to really stick with it.”