On her very first day at Next Door, a homeless shelter that occupies a nondescript building on Polk Street, Yalaanda Ellsberry met Melinda Lindsey.
"This is my first time in a shelter," Elsberry told us recently. "And I've found a lot of people are very closed off." Lindsey, however, was open and friendly, and they became fast friends.
Ellsberry knew that early on Christmas Eve, Lindsey was scheduled to catch a bus to go visit relatives near Monterey. So she was surprised to see Lindsey still in bed when the overhead lights were switched on at 6:30 a.m. She shook her friend's shoulders, trying to rouse her.
"For some reason, this particular time, I just knew to check for rigor mortis," Ellsberry said. When Lindsey's hand moved in response, "I thought, good – get that thought out of your head, girl." But when she touched her friend's forehead, it felt cool.
Word of Lindsey's questionable condition spread across the fourth floor of the shelter quickly. But, said Ellsberry and other residents we interviewed, staff members were slow to react and basically left the residents to try to revive Lindsey on their own. The residents summoned a woman who was staying there who happened to be a registered nurse, and she began to perform CPR.
The nurse, who asked us not to print her name, said she was dismayed to find that none of the standard medical equipment was available – neither face masks for performing CPR nor the defibrillator paddles that can sometimes shock a person back to life after a heart attack.
Forty-three-year-old Lindsey, who had serious heart problems, was pronounced dead soon after the paramedics arrived. Her body lay on the floor, covered by a blanket, for close to two hours before being picked up by the coroner.
Several Next Door residents told us they were horrified by the shelter's response to the emergency. The nurse said that neither of the staffers who were there "would attempt CPR. They didn't even go anywhere near her."
Ken Reggio, executive director of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), which holds the city contract to run Next Door, said that based on everything he's reviewed, the shelter handled Lindsey's death just fine: "I think we had a client who was seriously ill and passed away in her sleep." He added that residents stepped in to perform CPR while a staffer phoned the paramedics, but that the shelter's whole staff is "trained in CPR and capable of administering it."
But no matter what exactly happened on Dec. 24, Lindsey's death has prompted some residents to band together and demand that Next Door improve its plans for dealing with medical emergencies. They have appealed to outside groups and city government for help, saying they want to be treated more humanely.
"My thing is," Ellsberry said, "I want to see a change."
. . .
Next Door – which used to be known by the catchy name Multi-Service Center North – is one of San Francisco's largest homeless facilities. City officials often hold it up as a model program.
Today the shelter has room for 280 people, divided by gender, and a 30-bed "respite care" program, run in partnership with the Department of Public Health, that's meant for homeless people with health problems. In the past couple of years, Next Door has been transformed into a longer-term shelter where residents can stay up to six months. That alone makes it more appealing than most city shelters, where beds are typically rotated every one to seven days.