Shelter Shock - Coalition on Homelessness

A warm thank you for all the many volunteers
who made this report possible.
Survey Takers
Javier Amaro
Tonya Briggs
Martha Castillo
Miguel Carrera
Calvin Davis
Najuawanda Daniels
Jennifer Friedenbach
Ernesto Garcia
Elihu Hernandez
Jonathon Hootman
Theresa Howe
Benjamin Johnson
Chlorissa McClain
Bob Offer-Westort
Liz Olsen
Linda Pettye
Karl Start
Gustavo Gomez
Writers and Editors
Jason Albertson
Daisy Anarchy
Rachel Brahinsky
Jennifer Friedenbach
Chanel Kennedy
Jonathon Hootman
Bob Offer-Westort
Tomas Picarello
Brent Sipes
Table of Contents
Executive Summary
Barriers to Access
Abuse and Cruelty
Health and Hygiene: Health Crisis In
The Shelter System
Recommendations: An Action Plan to Guarantee
Shelters Respect Residents Human Rights.
Appendix I: Copy of Survey Instrument
Appendix II: Chart Outlining Shelter Costs
One square of toilet paper. No soap. Abuse, neglect, and overcrowding. Shelter
seekers turned away – as beds stand empty. Confusion among those seeking shelter as
city policies constantly change. For those who complain: threats, harassment, and
eviction. Welcome to the horror of San Francisco’s homeless shelters.
Since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office, media attention has been directed at
his headline efforts, Care not Cash and Project Homeless Connect – while homeless
shelters have been ignored. But in a city that professes to care about human rights,
there’s an unheard, unpublished desperately important story waiting to be told.
For years the Coalition on Homelessness has monitored the city’s shelters, going
to each shelter on a regular basis, meeting with residents, attending community
meetings. We know that certain shelter operators and individual managers do an
outstanding job. But we’ve also seen abusive and cruel treatment of shelter residents.
Under Newsom, who has used his homeless policies to build a political reputation, the
situation in the shelters has gotten worse.
The problems we uncovered in our survey of 215 shelter users included the
following forms of human rights abuses:
Abuse: 55% report some form of abuse from staff or other residents
inside the shelter. The lack of effective training and mentoring for shelter
staff workers means that our city’s most vulnerable residents don’t get
the help they need.
Threat to public health: Our survey uncovered poor food quality and
serious sanitation issues. Lack of soap and limited toilet paper pose major
health risks to shelter residents – and the rest of the city. Nearly a third
of respondents reported they did not have access to toilet paper, feminine
hygiene products, soap or other bathroom supplies.
Basic needs: Shelters do not meet a basic need of residents—a place
where they and their belongings can be safe and secure. Half of all survey
respondents told us they had no secure place to leave their belongings.
A constantly shifting service terrain: Over 300 shelter beds shelter
beds have closed in the recent past, and access points are continually
moving. Homeless people are under constant stress to re-learn the rules
of the game to obtain shelter. New policies governing access and are not
introduced in a systematic fashion. Little effort is made to inform
residents of critical changes governing access to shelter, particularly
challenging for those with mental health disabilities.
Access: The barriers that keep homeless people from accessing shelter
beds are high and continue growing. And although people sleep on the
streets every night, the number of shelter beds available has shrunk by
364 sleeping units (beds or floor mats) between July 2004 and December
Perpetuation of the poverty cycle: The system keeps homeless
people in a dreary continuing cycle. They have to spend hours each day
attempting to secure a bed in a shelter, a place which too often is
frightening and unsafe. People try to improve their lives – but the system
makes it more and not less difficult to get the health care, job training
and other needed support to stay alive and exit homelessness.
No human being should have to live under such conditions. San Francisco
supplies the majority of the funds for shelter operations, and owns the buildings of the
three of the largest shelters (Next Door, Hamilton Family Center, Multi-Service Center
South). The mayor says he wants to shutter all of San Francisco’s homeless shelters,
that they are unfit for human habitation. Yes, we too want to ‘empty the shelters’ –
that’s one of our long-term goals. But we haven’t reached that moment yet. We don’t
have affordable safe, decent housing for those who need it. As long as San Francisco
has people on the streets – and as long as we’ve made a commitment to having shelters
– we must fully fund them, monitor them, and keep them clean, safe, and humane.
Although shelters cannot solve homelessness, San Francisco’s homeless shelters
should offer sanctuary from life on the streets, and should be a place homeless voices
are heard. Shelter operators must be held accountable, and there must be a system in
place for shelter residents to report problems without fear of retaliation.
Read on for more detail. Once you have–-raise your voice to tell the mayor and
the Board of Supervisors to take action now. Our homeless shelters should become
places that support a transition out of homelessness instead of being the outrageous,
fear-and-disease generating spaces they are today.
The Right to a Roof Work Group of the Coalition on Homelessness interviewed 215
shelter residents inside and outside city-funded shelters to document human rights
abuses experienced within the shelter system. This survey was primarily conducted by
volunteers and individuals who reside in the shelter system. This effort was conducted
to gain insight, record problems, and to create the foundation for the radical reform
needed in our shelter system. Given the increasing frequency with which shelter
residents made contact with the COH to report negative incidents, we decided to
undertake this survey project. The results shocked us. They will shock you too.
Rampant Abuse in San Francisco’ s City Fund ed Shelt ers
More than half of respondents, or 55%, reported experiencing abuse inside the shelter.
(Many individuals experienced more than one form of abuse)
Overall experience of some form of abuse
Physical Violence
Sexual Abuse
Verbal Abuse
Other Forms of Abuse
Shelters Fail To Offer Safe Refuge Fo r Many
One-third (32%) of respondents reported that overall they did not feel safe. For those
who did not feel safe, we asked them why not, and here are the most common
Rude and neglectful staff
Physical Violence
Stolen Property
Lack of Privacy
Shelters Fail To Respond To Man y Comp laints
Over half (56%) of respondents reported that the shelter did not respond to their
complaints and suggestions. The lack of a responsive environment is itself destabilizing
and leads to further demoralization.
Information Not Provid ed In Lan guage Spo ken
One-third of the non-English speakers (32%) we surveyed reported that they did not
receive information in their spoken language.
Secure P lace For Prop erty Lacking
About one-half (49%) of respondents reported that the shelter did not provide a
secure place for their property.
Shelter Foo d Falls Short o f M eet ing Nutritional N eed s
Over half (55%) of respondents reported that their nutritional and dietary needs were
not being met by the shelter. The most common reasons for this shortcoming
Food not provided
Not meeting special dietary needs
Unbalanced, non-nutritional food
Poor Food Quality
Serving Hours Unworkable
Poor service
Small Portions
Shelter Fails to Prov ide Basic Hy giene Supp lies for Many
Almost a third of respondents, or 27%, did not have access to toilet paper, feminine
hygiene products, soap or supplies in the bathroom.
The Shelter Monitoring Committee monitors health and hygiene in City funded
shelters. They look for posters encouraging and showing proper hand washing
techniques, accessible and working order sinks, soap dispensers, disposable towels or
dryers and towels where showers are available. Of the 19 city shelters, only six
(one-third) met these basic requirements. The National Health Care for the
Homeless Council states that “hand washing is the single most effective and least costly
way to reduce the spread of infections, including the common cold, Hepatitis A, food
borne illness and many other viral and bacterial diseases”.
No Privacy Using Bathroom Facilities
Almost half (45%) of respondents reported they did not have privacy using the
bathroom facilities.
Shelter Fails Peo ple with Disabilities
Half (50%) of respondents reported they had either a mental or physical disability. Of
those who reported a disability, 59% reported that their special needs were not being
Homeless Peop le Hav e So lutions
We asked homeless people to give us ideas for legislation to ensure basic human rights
principles are adhered to in the shelter. The responses were diverse, eloquent and
pointed. Here are the most common responses we received:
Dignified Treatment from staff
Decent Facility
Fair Enforcement of Rules
Access to Services
Medical Care
Freedom for Sexism and Homophobia
Decent Operating Hours
Sensitivity to Mental Illness
Over the years, the Coalition on Homelessness has received a steady stream of
complaints from shelter residents. Yet, the frequency and severity of the complaints
we received seemed to dramatically escalate over the past year. The stories we heard
became more horrifying. We began a series of “safe” community meetings with shelter
residents where even an intimidated shelter resident could speak out without fear of
retribution. These meetings took place off site from the shelter. We did not invite
shelter staff. We had residents prioritize and categorize the areas they felt needed
change in the shelters. Residents identified that staff treatment of shelter residents
and health and hygiene were the most pressing issues. After we collectively identified
that these issues fit into a human rights framework, the idea for a human rights
campaign was born. Our first step was to document the abuse of those rights by talking
directly with shelter residents. The result of this effort is the grim report now before
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?
In small places, close to home.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Human rights are international ethical standards approved by the member states of the
United Nations, codified into law and imosing specific obligations on all governments
including the United Sates. These rights address the most immediate and basic needs
of every individual and demand the transformation of every society.
Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health
and well-being of himself and of his family, inc luding food, clothing,
housing and medical care and necessary social services.
Human Rights dominate social justice struggles around the globe, yet here in the
United States they remain mostly absent from public discourse. Poor communities
around the country are starting to embrace human rights as a means to create new
avenues for social change. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
reads “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all
members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the
world.” When we engage in dialogue with shelter residents about their current living
situation, the human rights framework allows people to think of economic inequities
in terms of rights. Clearly, the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and
well-being, including food and housing is not being embraced by many San Francisco
The Coalition has successfully instituted a number of major shelter reforms with the
help of other Community Based Organizations, including the Uniform Shelter
Grievance Procedure and the passage of legislation that created the Shelter Monitoring
Committee. Each of these reforms resulted in fundamental changes to the shelter
system. The grievance procedure ensured that individuals and families kicked out of the
shelter system had a right to appeal that decision, have an advocate, and access to a
fair hearing where an independent decision maker would decide if the shelter followed
its own policy in evicting the individual, thereby ensuring basic fairness and due process
rights for those shelter residents being evicted, denied services or suspended from
shelter services. The Uniform Shelter Grievance procedures were designed to ensure
basic fairness and justice in shelter operations at the level of individual protection, not
to address needed changes in overall shelter policy or shortcomings at the level of
shelter operations.
The Shelter Monitoring Committee was the Coalition on Homelessness’ next step
towards reforming the shelter system. The Committees enabling legislation set the
groundwork for major changes in the shelter system. The Shelter Monitoring
Committee conducts announced and unannounced visits to shelters, providing a legally
mandated public source of information relayed quarterly in the form of reports made
directly to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors. While the monitoring committee does
not have the power to change or set policy affecting a particular shelter, it is an
invaluable resource, because it provides a foundation for forging fundamental change
in the shelter system.
Our next initiative is outlined in our recommendations section, as we call for the
passage of binding legislation that sets standards for shelters in San Francisco and
mechanisms for ensuring those standards get met. This proposed legislation is based in
a common perception of the basic human rights that accrue not just to shelter
residents, but to any San Franciscan and all human beings.
When elected, Mayor Newsom announced that he would work towards the day when
shelters would close. He announced plans for housing through his Care Not Cash
program, promising homeless people housing and arranging photo opportunities in
which he proudly handed keys to homeless men and women. Four years later, there
are still thousands of homeless people living on the streets. This reality did not prevent
him from moving swiftly toward prematurely closing and de-funding shelters; over 364
sleeping units in shelters have been lost between July 2004 and December 2006.
Since Newsom has taken office, the Coalition has noticed a deterioration of the shelter
system, especially in the large urban shelters whose structure is owned by the city.
Increasing numbers of homeless people have come to us, complaining of human rights
abuses. When homeless people reported this, as well as abuse, problems in gaining
access to shelter, and other problems, they were met with indifference, inaction and
neglect on the part of the city. The Mayor has actually pointed to these problems as
reasons to close the shelters. Responsible bodies--the Board of Supervisors and the
Human Service Agency-- have failed to take corrective action. There has been a silence
around shelters, giving the impression that shelter residents have been forgotten by
the Administration and the public at large. Silence is a tool used by institutions as a
cover-up technique or as a way to ignore the real need for change. However, the
blatant abuse, neglect and health risks encountered by homeless people in city funded
shelters forces us to break this purposeful silence and demand accountability to our
most vulnerable San Franciscans.
We believe that not one more shelter bed should be closed in San Francisco until every
man woman and child has a safe place to call home.
There are great examples of shelters in San Francisco that are doing a lot with little, but
these are the exceptions. Those shelters doing the best job seem to also be the ones
targeted for closure, funding cuts or other harassment by the city, while those shelters
guilty of human rights abuses continue on granted silent consent or open support and
continued funding by the city.
In preparing this report, we sought to first to determine if there were examples of
human rights abuses in San Francisco’s shelter system and, if so, the extent to which
that abuse was present. We wanted to preserve and amplify the many, and so often
silenced, voices of homeless men, woman and children residing in San Francisco’s
shelters. The information we uncovered in our human rights survey of 215 shelter
residents was shocking. We hope this report will lay the foundation for radical reform
of San Francisco’s shelter system.
Informed by the responses of 215 shelter residents, this report provides an indepth understanding of the shelter and human rights experience here in San Francisco.
It represents the lived experience of poor and homeless people who are asserting a
desire for change and the willingness to effect it. The report does not analyze the
overall shelter experience, but examines more narrowly previously known problem
areas identified by shelter residents in community forums.
The survey was conducted by volunteer and representatives from the Coalition
on Homelessness, who used a standardized survey instrument developed for the task.
In order to survey those individuals who have personal experience with the shelter
system, we targeted ten major shelters and four shelter reservation sites inside
resource centers. After agreeing to be surveyed, shelter seekers and residents were
interviewed with questions from a standard form. The interviewer transcribed the
responses in order to minimize errors.
Technically, the survey form provided a balance between conciseness, through
clear “yes,” “no” structured questions, and contingent/open-ended questions ("if yes/no,
explain”). The completed surveys were sorted and coded. This entailed thematically
matching open-ended responses with like answers (e.g.: “better staff” and “staff needs
training” under “staff issues”) to obtain a tally. All of the responses given, per question,
were assigned unique numbers and then entered into a spread sheet. The data was
broken down substantively per question as well as into three key themes against which
the overall responses were evaluated: the specific shelter or service center, race or
ethnicity, and gender.
Initial demographic numbers were reviewed before completion, to ensure that
proportions of individuals interviewed reflected the demographic breakdown of the
shelter population. We attempted to match our sample with the known dimension of
the extant shelter population. For example, more men responded to our survey
request than women, because there are fewer beds for women in the shelter system.
Overall, our survey targeted shelter residents, and not the entire homeless population.
In the final stage of interviewing we targeted groups we found to be underrepresented by our sample, including families, immigrants and larger shelters. The
result is a balanced sample that effectively represents the shelter demographic in San
The surveys were conducted during a single time period, from 12/1/20062/28/2007. Benefits of this type of survey rise from its avoidance of multiple variables,
a problem intrinsic to long-term studies as well as the homeless experience itself. This
constraint moves the focus from generic trends to an accurate snap-shot of current
shelter conditions.
We also obtained data from governmental sources, including the Mayor’s Office
of Disability and the Shelter Monitoring Committee. In order to examine the access
issue, we collected declarations from over 50 homeless people outside the shelter and
conducted 9 interviews on shelter access with key informants who work with these
issues on a daily basis.
The character of the data indicates the individually qualified perspectives
specific to those people who responded. Inevitable in respondent-centered surveys,
answers can be skewed by exaggerations, omissions, and equanimities. The survey truly
reflects the perception of the individuals interviewed. That the survey as a whole has
explanatory power is demonstrated by the repetition and recurrence of particular
answers as well as the trends uncovered through its analysis. The survey was
structured to be as personal and open-ended as possible to capture the humanity of the
problem and the qualitative nature of the lived experiences that respondents described.
Sites Surv ey ed
We interviewed individuals inside shelters and at shelter access points. At the
shelter access points, we targeted individuals waiting to make a shelter reservation. At
Project Homeless Connect, we preceded the interview by asking if the individual had
recently stayed inside one of San Francisco’s shelters.
Inside Shelters
Next Door Shelter
Episcopal Sanctuary Shelter
Hamilton Family Center
Multi-Service Center South
Ella Hill Hutch
150 Otis
Lark Inn Youth Shelter
Dolores Street Shelter
St. Joseph’s
Providence Shelter
# interviewed
% of total sample
Resource Centers/Access Points
Project Homeless Connect
Tenderloin Health Resource Center
McMillan Drop-In
CCHH Tenderloin Self Help
Mission Resource Center
# interviewed
% of total sample
Age of R espondents
We interviewed adults, including single adults, parents, and young adults. Children
under the age of 18 were not included in our survey sample.
18 -24
25 -39
55 an d
ov er
Race and Ethnicity of Respond ents
Caucasian/ White
Native American
% of
who did
Gender of Respond ents
Women are under-represented in this survey, due to the fact that women’s beds in the
shelter system have been temporarily lost. Currently, of the 1,120 shelter beds for
single adults in San Francisco, only 229 shelter beds are available to women.
Separately, there are family shelters, women reside with their children. Both these
groups were included in our survey.
Disab ility Status o f R espond ents
Half of respondents reported either a physical or mental disability. This indicates a
large proportion of people with disabilities residing in the shelter system.
% of those
who did
“Let me tell you, I will n ever go back to those
shelt ers. Riding the bu s, pulling my stuff from place
to place, g etting four hours of sleep, waking up and
having somebody else yelling at me fo r who knows
what, getting the boot at 5 :30 in the morning and
having them tell m e I wou ld hav e to do go back to
the center city and do the whole thing over again
that day. Hell no.”
-African American man (age unknown)
Ironically, one of the greatest problems with the City’s shelter system is the difficulty
gaining access to the bed. In theory, emergency housing is low-threshold and
accessible to a wide range of people, from those who might use the shelter as a first
step in finding permanent housing to those who simply want a warm, dry place to sleep
for a night or two. There so many barriers to simply getting into the shelter that they
are no longer accessible to this wide range of people. A homeless person has to expend
a significant amount of time and energy learning the system, excluding those who have
no—or cannot ‘go up the learning curve.’ The complexities of navigating the system
make access so difficult and time consuming that staying in the shelter is not possible
for many of San Francisco’s homeless who could benefit from a safe place to stay.
Reservation Sy stem Tim e Consu ming
“Some nights, getting into the shelter is like a fu ll-tim e job.”
- African American man (age unknown)
For homeless men and women seeking emergency shelter, one of the central barriers is
obtaining a reservation. In 2004, the City implemented a centralized referral and
intake system (CHANGES) for all shelter. As a result, a homeless person seeking a
shelter bed must report to one of the City’s six Resource Centers for a referral to
shelter. The reservation desks are at multiple locations, with differing hours of
operations. Some are open for just a few hours a day. None are currently available on a
24 hours basis. In fact, except for the Bayview district, there is no reservation site open
past 10:00 pm, and none operate 24 hours a day. The system requires biometric
imaging of all shelter seekers, cost over $1 million to develop, and several hundred
thousand dollars per year to operate. Although referrals can ostensibly be made at
some Resource Centers at any time during the day, there are few vacant beds to which
people can be regularly referred. There are two times of day when beds are likely to be
available in the system: early in the morning, when the Resource Centers open, and in
the late evening, after most Resource Centers (bed reservation sites) close and the
shelters re-allocate unfilled reserved beds. These are the only times that vacancies
appear in the centralized system and can be given out to the men and women waiting
at the Resource Center. Thus, well in advance of both periods, homeless men and
women line up at the Resource Centers in hope of getting one of the desirable vacant
beds – perhaps at one of the shelters known for their friendly staff, or where the length
of stay is seven days instead of one, or where there is Spanish-speaking staff. But,
particularly in the morning, few beds are given out, so many of the people lined up
must return in the evening and wait again. This process is time-consuming and
frustrating. As a result, many people get filtered out along the way: as described by
one provider, “It’s now a system-wide lottery and the beds often go to those people
who can wait in line the longest.” Waiting in line for shelter reservations makes it
difficult to accomplish other necessary activities such as making or getting to health
care appointments, going to work or obtaining other necessities of life.
Shelter Seekers Turn ed Away Fro m Empty B eds
There are other challenges to getting a reservation at the shelters. According to staff at
the Resource Centers as well as staff at the shelters, the CHANGES (centralized shelter
reservation system) is unreliable and glitch-prone, such that it is not always possible to
refer people to shelters, even when there are vacancies. On nights when the City’s
Human Services Agency claims that the shelters beds are unoccupied, Resource Center
staff report that no vacant beds are show up in the system. As one provider pointed
out, “even if there are vacancies, what good do they do if Resource Center workers
can’t reserve them?”
During two weeks this past winter, shortly after the City released a statement
encouraging the homeless to come in from the streets a supposed 100 vacant shelter
beds, the Coalition on Homelessness tracked the number of people turned away at
three central city shelter reservation sites. With information gathered from
Resource Center staff, we learned that close to 50 per day were turned
away. When the city moved to shut down McMillan Drop-In Center, they replaced it
with a temporary 24-hour drop-in center for homeless people, but chose not put in the
CHANGES shelter reservation at the site. As a disturbing example of one night in the
shelter shuffle, the manager of Buster’s Place, reported to the Ten Year Planning
Council that on Sunday March 25, 2007, 62 people attempted to get shelter at this site,
26 of whom were not able to access beds and spent the night sitting up in chairs.
As a result of these system problems, many of the City’s homeless return to the streets
every night, while shelter beds may sit empty. Other difficulties reported by homeless
men and women include being told by staff at a Resource Center that a reservation had
been made for them at a shelter, only to learn upon arriving at that shelter that there
was no reservation. Irrespective of the source of these problems, it is clear that the
computerized reservation and referral process for the shelters is error prone, and many
homeless men and women are left out in the cold.
Transportation To Shelters Lacking
Depending on where a shelter reservation is made, getting to that bed can be a
problem and constitutes a significant barrier. Although most of the City’s Resource
Centers and shelters are located in the central parts of the city, e.g, the Tenderloin or
South of Market, some are in the Bayview and less centrally-located areas. For the
homeless men and women referred, to the Bayview from a Resource Center in the
Mission or the Tenderloin, transportation presents a significant problem. Homeless
men and women describe the difficulty of getting to the Bayview late at night:
reporting cases in which no bus tokens were provided; others describe waiting and
waiting for buses that are not running any more or that refuse to stop; and numerous
people report safety concerns with arriving in an unfamiliar neighborhood encumbered
with their belongings in the middle of the night. In theory, the City funds Community
Awareness Treatment Services (CATS) to operate a van to transport people from the
Resource Centers to the shelters. However, by most accounts, the van is unreliable.
Various providers describe incidents where as many as twenty people have been
stranded at the Resource Centers at night waiting for a van that never arrived. For the
elderly and people with physical disabilities, the need for a reliable transportation
system between resource center and shelter is crucial – even for sites that may be
relatively close to one another. It is clear that the system is allowing people –
sometimes those people who could most benefit from a warm, dry place to sleep – to
slip through the cracks, leaving them unable to alone to face the challenge of getting
to the bed themselves after getting themselves to the Resource Center to make the
reservation for that bed.
Shelter Op eration s in Con stant Flux
In 2006-2007 there are 838 sleeping units for men and 282 for women in single adult
shelter system. Beds account for 64% (714) of the sleeping units, cots for 8% (93) and
mats, 28% (313). The following is a breakdown of the type of reservation that can be
made at each site (source: (Shelter Monitoring Committee per the Human Service
Agency, Sleeping units available).
Reservation Type
1 day
7 day
60 day
90 –day
4 month
6 month
Case management
Resource Center
Care not Cash
Percentage of Units
4% (50 sleeping units)
22% (245 sleeping units)
3% (40 sleeping units)
2% (25 sleeping units)
4% (55 sleeping units)
20% (210 sleeping units)
15% (171 sleeping units)
10% (112 sleeping units)
7% (73 sleeping units)
1% (10 sleeping units)
12% (129 sleeping units – released for one night if no show)
Overall, the shelter system is a maze that requires constant inputs on the part of the
homeless person to navigate. The reservation system is confusing, unreliable and
unwieldy; the transportation system is also unreliable; and the shelters themselves
seem to be in flux and transition. According the Shelter Monitoring Committee, 364
sleeping units in shelters have been lost between July 2004 and December 2006. The
CHANGES shelter reservation system migrates frequently – from 39 Fell to 150 Otis,
Self Help Center, Glide, all operating at different hours of the day – making it harder to
understand just where you need to go if you want shelter. Further, city policies
governing shelter provision are adopted differently at different sites and, according to
some accounts, sometimes not adopted at all. Operational practices at any given site
seem to shift with some frequency. For instance, the times at which beds are released
for use after the reservation holder has not occupied it vary from one shelter to
another, adding to the Resource Center waiting game. In addition, policies-in-practice
may not adhere to written policies; this seems particularly common with respect to
what time shelters close in the morning and ask residents to leave. It is well-known
among the providers and homeless men and women interviewed that some shelters
return the homeless to the streets at least an hour before the time of closure stated in
their operating contracts with the city.
This transience and constant shuffling creates an existence that is stressful and
unstable. Admitted to the shelter late at night, kept awake by other shelter residents
who are settling in, and awakened at the crack of dawn, many homeless people report
that they cannot get a decent night’s sleep at the shelters and that the protracted
process of waiting and traveling between sites is not worth the few hours of sleep that
they may obtain once within the shelter. Three shelters operate at night-time only,
with check-ins as late as 10:00 pm and wake up as early as 5:00 am. These sites have
alternative uses during the day. These operations are additionally difficult for the men
and women who are working, some of whom have to leave the shelters even earlier in
the morning to travel to a worksite.
Shelter Sy stem Fails Peop le with Disab ilities
There is no culture within the sh elter syst em that is
based on the needs of the po pula tion. There is
nothing caring about it. It is not a healing place.
The staff is not trained for hea ling – they’re not
trained at a ll. They are simply t here to maintain
order and control.
- White female (age unknown)
For the hundreds of homeless men and women with physical or mental disabilities,
these barriers are even more obstructive. While waiting in line twice a day or moving
back and forth between Resource Centers and shelters is frustrating and exhausting for
almost everyone, these tasks can be excruciating or physically impossible for people
with disabilities. Some of the shelters don’t comply with ADA regulations, lacking
ramps or elevators, making them literally inaccessible to people in wheelchairs or with
impaired mobility. The Mayor’s Office on Disability reports additional problems. These
include the frequent referral of people with physical disabilities to top bunks or to
shelters where there are just mats on the floor; the unreliability of the MAP van for
transporting people to and from the shelters; and insufficient accommodations in
showers or bathrooms.
It is crucial to note that these are not simply isolated incidents experienced by a
handful of people. Of the 215 shelter residents surveyed by the Coalition,
50% reported having a physical or mental disability. Of these, more than
half (59%) state their disabilities are not accommodated in the shelter in
which they’re staying.
The mission of the Mayor's Office on Disability is to ensure that every program, service,
benefit, activity and facility operated or funded by the City of San Francisco is fully
accessible to, and useable by, people with disabilities. They receive complaints from
San Francisco residents on a variety of disability issues, everything from problems
accessing Muni to lack of sidewalk ramps. A full one-fourth of the complaints
they receive are regarding disability access issues from the relatively
small population homeless people residing in the shelter system.
Breakdown Of Mayor’s Office Of Disability She lter Complaints Received
Fiscal Year 06 / 07
Staff harassment over disability accommodations
Denial of Service (DOS) based on psychiatric disability, threat of violence or
Bed reservations
Bed rest at shelters
Excessive adherence to rules w/o regard for individual cases
Lower bunk bed
MAP van
The Coalition heard from a number of people about the unwillingness of shelter staff to
accommodate people. They refuse to allow one man with a broken ankle to use the
elevator, took more than a week to provide a lower bunk to a woman in a wheelchair,
and question whether or not people were disabled at all, a violation of a disabled
person’s civil rights under the A.D.A., which prohibits requiring people to reveal the
nature of their disability to obtain access to services or reasonable accommodation.
One woman described losing access to shelters after hospitalization:
I wa s dropped from the sh elt er rolls 24 hours befo re
my surg ery, and they did not let me back into the
shelt er until 48 hours aft er my surgery, and I have
seen this happen to others three different times.
- 37-year old Latina female
Each of these circumstances violates ADA regulations and adds another layer of access
problems. The result is described by one informant as a “filtering” process by which the
shelters are made most accessible to those individuals without physical disabilities.
For individuals with mental disabilities, more problems arise, many of which come from
the general lack of awareness and insensitivity about the nature of mental disabilities.
As described by one provider, the structure of the system is a barrier to people
struggling with mental illness. Sleeping on a mat on the floor less than the legally
required 36” from other people in a noisy and stressful environment can be intolerable
for someone with a psychiatric disorder. Many describe unsympathetic staff, who not
only question whether or not mental illness is a disability, but who frequently interpret
the behavior of people with mental illness as violent or disruptive. There are,
tragically, reports of staff engaging in provocative, client- escalating behavior, who
then use their response as a basis to eject that person for being disruptive. The Mayor’s
Office on Disability reports that, instead of working with people with mental illness to
de-escalate situations that arise, shelter staffs frequently punish them for “acting out”
or “breaking rules.”
At times, men and women with mental illness who have long-term reservations at
emergency shelters lose them after a hospitalization, forcing them back into the
Resource Center shuffle and short-term reservation system. While these conditions
may be navigable for certain people, they can be insurmountable for an individual with
a mental health issue and increase the likelihood that people with mental illness will
fall through the cracks. As described by one homeless woman, these circumstances
“make the whole system hostile.” It is clear that the problems faced by people with
disabilities in the emergency housing system are widespread and multi-layered and that
the City has yet to determine the extent of the problem – just how many people with
disabilities are in the system – much less assess and accommodate their needs.
In sum. for many of the City’s homeless people, the shelter system is a confusing,
unpredictable maze. Just getting to the door of the shelter is exhausting, and stressful.
As a result, many homeless men and women simply wait. They wait at a Resource
Center for a bed, wait for the MAP van or a bus, or wait late at night to check into a
shelter. Their most valuable possession, their life, is spent waiting. Others remain
outside of the system altogether; turned away because there were no vacancies;
referred to an inaccessible top bunk; denied service for “threatening” behavior that was
misinterpreted by staff; or just become so exhausted by the daily shuffle to give up on
it altogether. All of these barriers defy the purpose of emergency shelter by making it
impossible, frustrating, and more stressful to access than remaining out of care,
“The staff treat u s like anima ls o r make us feel like children”
51 year old wh ite ma le
Right to Freedom From Abu se
Losing your home is one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences a human
being can encounter. Shelters, created as a temporary solution to a national epidemic,
should be a sanctuary from the trauma experienced by homeless people on the street.
They should be a place to give one comfort and support while going through a
frightening experience, and act as a launch pad into housing. What we have found is
that for many homeless people, their experience with the shelter system has been the
The most common problem residents identified was the lack of accountability and
mistreatment of residents by staff, which was mentioned throughout the survey.
Homelessness is where all forms of oppression intersect, whether it is racial, disability,
sexual orientation, gender or simply poverty. All of these groups face discrimination by
the society at large along the status dimension, and are over-represented in the
homeless population. Homeless people as a group experience an uncensored level of
hatred from the dominant and more affluent culture in the United States. They are
blamed for their un-housed status, presumed to have an at-fault condition, failure or
shortcoming. They are victims of hate crimes, are constantly accosted by members of
our society, stigmatized, looked down upon and shunned.
We at the Coalition on Homelessness know homelessness is caused by structural
failures of our economic and political system, such as the lack of affordable housing
and living wage jobs. Homelessness is a by-product of severe poverty, and a result of
governmental neglect. San Francisco shelters should be a respite from the cruelty
homeless people experience within the society at large. Sadly, homeless people
reported that many shelters reflect the same, larger-society oppressive environment
under their own roofs. Reports of inhumane treatment, sexism, homophobia, and
racism were rampant in our findings, as were many other forms of abuse.
“I have a right to be treated a s a human being, not as a
bed number o r a statist ic”
44 yea r old b lack female
We asked residents to identify any forms of abuse inside the shelter.
More than half, or 55% of respondents reported experiencing some form
of abuse inside San Francisco shelter. (Many individuals experienced more than
one form of abuse)
Overall experience of some form of abuse
Physical Violence
Sexual Abuse
Verbal Abuse
Other Forms of Abuse
We also broke down the responses according to abuse by the four largest shelters, as
well as abuse by gender and race. Next Door topped all categories of abuse, as did
Right to Safety
“I was assaulted by shelter security and thrown down th e
46 y ear o ld black male
We also asked residents if overall they felt safe in the shelter. We were discouraged to
find that one-third (32%) of respondents reported they did not feel safe. Individuals at
Next Door Shelter felt the least safe (50% did not feel safe overall) of all shelters. For
those who did not feel safe, we asked them why not. Here are the most common
responses they gave:
Rude and neglectful staff
Physical violence
Stolen Property
Lack of Privacy
Lack o f R esp onsiv eness to Complaints and Sugg estion s
“They just brush off our concerns, there is no end result and
the problem continues.”
46 y ear o ld black female
Shelter staff is under-paid and overworked. Disagreements will arise, residents are in a
state of panic at times, and homelessness is stressful. Mistakes will happen. However,
we were interested in finding out how the shelter responded when issues did arise. We
asked shelter residents if the shelter responded to their complaints and
suggestions, and over half of respondents, (56%) responded that they did
“I was threatened with a denia l o f serv ice because I disagreed
with what staff wa s doing”
50 year old wh ite ma le
Right to Information in Spo ken Language
“We a re not all parasites; we wh o don’t spea k English deserve
equal treatment”
37 year old Latino male
We asked non-English speakers if they received information in their
spoken language, a third (32%) did not. This not only acts as a barrier to nonEnglish speakers to exit homelessness, but also prevents individuals from accessing
the shelter system at all.
Right to Property
“My property rights were vio lated. Staff cut the lo ck to my
locker and took my stuff.”
37 year old Latina Tran sgend er
One of the many challenges homeless people face is being able to secure their property.
After losing your housing, you are left with your most precious items, whether photos
of loved family members, essential survival gear, or important papers crucial to
garnering employment or housing. Having a secure place for homeless people’s
property is critical. When we asked shelter residents if the shelter provided
a secure place for their property, about half (49%) reported they did not.
There is great disparity in San Francisco city funded shelters in terms of provision of a
secure place for resident property. Some of the larger shelters provide lockable lockers
for residents. Other shelters are operated in spaces that have other day-time uses, such
as churches and community centers. The night-time only shelters frequently do not
have secure places for individual’s property. Even in shelters where lockers are
provided, we received reports of broken locks, staff cutting locks and removing
property, and insufficient capacity. Due to lack of space, residents would have to leave
some belongings on their beds, which would get stolen.
Homeless Peop le Hav e So lutions
We asked homeless people to give us ideas for draft legislation to ensure human rights
are adhered to in the shelter. The responses were diverse, eloquent and pointed. Here
are the most common responses we received:
Treated with Dignity by staff
Decent Facility
Fair Enforcement of Rules
Access to services
Medical care
Freedom from sexism and homophobia
Decent Operating Hours
Sensitivity to mental illness
The Shelter Monitoring Committee continues to receive complaints about disrespectful
staff. Clients feel they are retaliated against for speaking to the Committee or
attending meetings of the Committee. Complaints regarding shelter staff continue to
be the most common complaint the committee receives.
Our findings mirror the findings of the Shelter Monitoring Committee. The overriding
concern among shelter residents we surveyed was mistreatment by staff. Not only
lacking training, but accountability and oversight, the responsibility falls squarely on
the shoulders of shelter management and the Human Services Agency who oversees
their contracts. Shelters should be a sanctuary from the trauma homeless people
experience on a daily basis, instead many shelters further traumatize their residents.
This mistreatment, abuse and cruelty must end.
Right to Hygienic and Clean Bathroom Facilities
“You hav e to go to staff to a sk fo r toilet paper,
like it is a prison.”
46 y ear o ld black female
Not only is the lack of toilet paper, soap and disposable towels in the shelter system’s
often times broken and dirty toilet and washing facilities one of the major human
rights violations occurring in San Francisco’s shelter system but this correctable
situation also creates a health hazard for shelter residents, threatening them with the
spread of communicable and infectious diseases. Shelter residents are left unable to
care for themselves in the most basic and humane ways that people who have stable
housing take for granted.
Besides being dangerous to their health, expecting shelter residents to use toilets and
washing facilities without adequate toilet paper, soap or towels and without privacy is
an attack on people’s human dignity.
We asked residents if they had access to hygienic supplies in the bathroom (such as
toilet paper, soap, and disposable towels or hand dryers,). One third (27.2%) said they
did not have access to necessary hygiene supplies in the bathroom:
No access to Hygiene Supplies in Bathroom
(toilet paper, soap, disposable towels)
“Latch on toilet s are broken, they are not clean, they don’t
give m e enough toilet paper, and the toilet ov erflo ws and was
not clean ed up for fiv e hours. In addition, they don’t put lids
on the trash and it stinks.”
41 year old mixed race female
The San Francisco Shelter Monitoring Committee’s Quarterly Report released January
24, 2007 documents this health crisis at our shelters in great detail (and includes
photographs). It contains overwhelming documentation of broken toilets, sinks,
showers; lack of toilet paper, soap and towels; and first-hand documentation of blood
and vomit in shelter bathroom facilities inspected by the Shelter Monitoring
Committee. They look for posters encouraging and showing proper hand washing
techniques, accessible and working order sinks, soap dispensers, disposable towels or
dryers and towels where showers are available. They found that of the 19 city
shelters and resource centers, only six (or one-third) met these basic
requirements. These included Tenderloin Health, Hamilton Family Shelter, Mission
Neighborhood Resource Center, 150 Otis, and Hospitality House. Dolores Street then
immediately corrected the issue.
The National Health Care for the Homeless Council states that “hand washing is the
single most effective and least costly way to reduce the spread of infections, including
the common cold, Hepatitis A, food borne illness and many other viral and bacterial
diseases”. The Shelter Monitoring Committee has found that many large urban shelters
do not provide toilet paper inside stalls. (Since the announcement of the release of this
report, at least one other shelter has added toilet paper dispensers). 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 Shelter Monitoring Committee has urged the city to
require all shelters to provide soap, towels, or dryers, and toilet paper inside every
bathroom. Today, this is not the case in San Francisco.
Right to Privacy Wh ile U sing Bat hroom Facilities
“There are no sho wer curtains”
60 y ear o ld ma le
One of the most common threads we hear from homeless people is the need for
dignity, and the loss of dignity they can accompany the loss of one’s home. There are
many indignities one may encounter, such as having to ask for help and being
disrespected in the process, or changing one’s clothes in a shelter, and having a staff
member of the opposite sex walk in mid-way. For many, having privacy using the
bathroom is key to maintaining a sense of dignity in the shelter system. We found
that almost half of respondents (45%) did not have privacy using the
Right to Food Secu rity
“I’m allergic to certain foods. I g et harassed if
I ask what is in the food.”
64 y ear o ld whit e female.
Oppression affects the poor in a multitude of ways, one of them being a lack of
nutritional food in their everyday diet due to lack of access to an income necessary to
purchase nutritious food. Malnutrition affects the behavior of children, their school
performance, and their overall cognitive development (Center on Hunger and Poverty
1998). From the perspective of residents, many shelters are not meeting basic dietary
needs for residents. This is absolutely unacceptable in a city that ranks 3rd in affluence
out of all the cities in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 2004 American
Community Survey)!
Over half (55%) of the 215 shelter residents surveyed said that the
shelters are not meeting their dietary needs. The main reasons cited were a
lack of available food and not meeting special dietary needs such as being diabetic, food
allergies, etc. Not providing balanced, nutritional food and general poor food quality
such as expired and moldy food were also common concerns.
"My needs are not being met as a diabetic"
57 Year o ld whit e male
The most common responses as to how their dietary needs were not being met
included (some gave more then one answer):
Food not Offered
Not meeting special dietary needs
Unbalanced, non-nutritional food
Poor Food Quality
Serving Hours Unworkable
Poor service
Small Portions
"I was inform ed that the chicken was on the counter for a
week, I too k one bit e and spit the rest out"
59 year old white male.
Based upon our extensive outreach and recent survey of 215 shelter residents, the
Coalition on Homelessness urges the adoption of a binding standard-of-care legislation
based on the following recommendations. The legislation would specify the inviolable
human rights of those who seek to utilize shelters and payment to shelter operators
would be tied to performance under its standards, with funding sanctions if corrective
measures are not taken immediately. Many items require no legislation and could be
enacted immediately. (indicated by a “*”)
Changes in Sh elter Access Need ed to Eliminate Barriers
Shelter reservations are to be no less than seven days at all city funded
Shelter reservations are to be arranged by any of the following; a resource
center, service provider or the shelter itself.*
All night emergency access to empty beds should be available.
The city must fund a central city 24-hour emergency drop-in center for
homeless people in the next fiscal year. * (Funding is set to end June, 2007,
and the current program will soon shut down)
Bus tokens should be given to each homeless person automatically when
reservation for shelter bed is made.
Fix CHANGES bed reservation system to rectify data discrepancies and
ensure an accurate empty bed inventory.*
Fully train staff on the CHANGES bed reservation system. Training should be
frequent, regular and include performance testing.*
Changes in Sh elter Op eration Needed to Create an Abuse Free
Management and staff of all city-funded shelters must have adequate
training, oversight, and accountability to shelter residents. *
Management and staff must treat all shelter residents equally and with
respect and dignity. When patterns of mistreatment arise based on Shelter
Monitoring Committee documentation, a corrective action plan focused on
the problem shelter must be initiated by Human Service Agency. If
corrective actions are not taken, funding sanctions should be imposed.
All shelters should hold focus groups with residents with fiscal or other
incentives with an independent facilitator and without staff present as part
of annual contract review. Public posting of responses to this survey and
focus groups as well as a draft action plan based on these results would be
required. Action plan should include process for broad input on final plan
from residents.*
All shelter management must provide shelter residents with a written
complaint policy. There must be tangible follow-up on complaints brought by
staff and residents. This should include the creation of an anonymous
complaint process, and public posting of both complaints and responses,
while maintaining confidentiality. Unresolved complaints must be sent to
city contract monitor for corrective action.
Provision of MH specialist for consultation to each shelter, directly to line
staff and management to assist staff who work with people who have mental
Shelter will provide access to secure resident personal property storage. If
this is unavailable inside shelter, storage can be off-site, without cost to
resident, and be available up until time of bed check.
Shelter residents should have access to electricity for charging cell phones.
MAP van should be available to assist homeless people moving out of
shelters and into permanent housing.
All city-funded shelter must provide its residents with toilet paper, soap,
disposable towels and hand dryers and hot water for showers.
All shelters must supply residents with 24-hour access to cold drinking water.
Shelters should be in line with current city policy of “Greening San Francisco”.
All Shelters should have ventilation and air purifiers to ensure air quality. All
shelters must be free from pesticides, insecticides and disinfectants that are
toxic to residents, when feasible.
Smoking must be prohibited inside shelter, unless separate space is provided
with separate ventilation system.
Nutritional and balanced meals must be provided to residents at all shelters
and must meet resident’s special dietary and religious needs.
Residents must be provided a minimum of one warm blanket, clean sheet and
pillow for sleeping accusation at all city-funded shelters.
Shelter residents will be allowed a minimum of eight hours of sleep. This
includes changing some operating hours, and ensuring staff do not wake up
residents prematurely.
Access to beds during day in full service shelters, especially when individuals
are on bed rest.
On December 1, 2004 the Board of Supervisors legislatively declared that “there is a
significant public interest in determining that the homeless shelters that the city funds,
are safe and sanitary, that the shelter policies and procedures are fair and meet the
needs of the clients accessing shelter services; that operations receiving city funds are
complying with their contractual obligations to the city, and that shelter clients benefit
from the expenditures of public funds” San Francisco Administrative Code, Section
Unfortunately, at the present time, many city-funded shelters are not safe and
It is easy to blame front line staff at shelters for the current horror inside San
Francisco’s shelters. That would be a mistake. There are hardworking, dedicated, and
compassionate staff working in shelters making the best of a bad situation. Staff are
hired with little experience, and are left without support in a difficult and low paying
job. Some of the shelters perpetuate a culture of negativity, victim blaming and
meanness that goes unaddressed by management (who may, in fact, prefer it). New
staff arriving in the midst of this institutional culture readily accept and replicate it in
turn. To do otherwise would be to risk alienating co-workers who believe they are
Training is uneven and at times not supported by management. Staff attend trainings,
and management is reported to contradict the trainers who are hired to give the
appearance of the provision of training to address customer service and client respect
Anger, abuse and neglectfull behavior by staff goes unchecked by management.
Formal procedures for accountability are lacking. The city contracting agencies do
nothing, aware of the problem but unwilling to address it, the most common excuse
being the fear of alienating established service providers. Collectively, there seems to
an attitude that residents are not worthy of respect and common decency.
Some shelters, such as Next Door, have residents that experience more abuse, and feel
less safe across the board. Other large shelters have similar problems, while not quite
as acute. There are examples of smaller shelters that do an excellent job in supporting
their staff and making sure residents are treated with respect. Shelters can be run well.
What it takes is the Mayor and Board of Supervisors to make shelter operation and
conditions a priority, to remember not to forget about the human rights of the
thousands of people seeking and utilizing shelter in the City and County of San
Francisco, who deserve nothing less. It is clear that only elected officials can force
action on the part of the Human Service Agency.
Those shelters that develop a poor track record should model their services after those
shelters that have succeeded at running a decent shelter. The successful model of the
high-performing shelters can and should be replicated, and if existing providers and
contract holders cannot perform as needed, they should be replaced. Otherwise, no
matter how many bodies are being sheltered, the taxpayers of San Francisco are not
getting what they pay for—a shelter system that truly helps people to exit
We note further that many city-funded shelters do not have policies and procedures
that are fair and meet a shelter resident needs for access to shelter services. There are
no minimum standards that shelters must meet.
The current Mayor and the Board of Supervisors have been aware for the past two and
a half years, of the inhumane and disgraceful conditions of many of the city funded
shelters. The Shelter Monitoring Committee, a duly constituted and legislatively
enabled body has been sending the Mayor and Board of Supervisors quarterly reports
detailing shelter conditions on issues of safety, hygiene, physical access to shelters,
staff training, and physical and mental abuse by staff. The quarterly reports by the
Shelter Monitoring Committee are consistent with the recent findings by the Coalition
on Homelessness’s survey of shelter residents. It is time to stop ignoring them.
While the Board and Mayor have not taken any steps to correct this horrendous
situation, it is not too late to act. 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 and enact our recommendations. This would end shelter
shock for the thousands of individuals and families in this city who are trying to survive
without affordable housing.
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.
Appendix I
Site:_______________________________ Human Rights Survey
Hi, my name is ___________________________ and I am a volunteer at the Coalition on
Homelessness. We are conducting a survey regarding human rights in the shelter
system. Your answers will be confidential, we will not ask your name and you can
choose to not answer any of the questions.
What are Human Rights?
Human rights are international ethical standards approved by the United Nations.
They address the rights to the most immediate and basic needs of all human beings and
demand the transformation of every society. They are principles of equity and dignity.
Since being in the shelter, have you been abused in any of the following ways?
___Yes___ No
___Yes___ No
___Yes___ No
___Yes___ No
___Yes___ No
(Please Explain) _____________
(Non English Speakers Only) Do you receive written and spoken information in
your language?
Does the shelter respond to your complaints or suggestions?
In general, do you feel safe in the shelter?
9, If no, why not? _________________________________________________
Does the shelter provide a secure place for your property?
Are your nutritional and dietary needs being met by the shelter?
12. If no, please explain. ______________________________________________
Do you have access to toilet paper, feminene hygiene products, soap and other
supplies in the shelter bathrooms?
Do you have privacy using the bathroom facilities?
If we draft human rights legislation for shelter residents and staff what items
should be included in this legislation? This could include human rights that are either
being respected or violated in the shelter.
Now we are asking demographic questions.
following questions.
Feel free to refuse to answer any the
How old are you? _______
Gender: Male _____ Female ______ Transgender ______
Black ______
Latino/Hispanic ______
Caucasian/White ______
Asian/Pacific Islander _______
Native American _______
Other: _________
Are you physically or mentally disabled?
____ Yes (if yes, go to question 20)
____ No
(if no, end survey here)
20. Are your special needs being accommodated by the shelter?
That is it! Thanks so much for your time!
Appendix II
This report on operating costs is the last one available, however, we do not
believe the shelter funding patterns have changed significantly.
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