Setting standards

San Francisco's homeless shelters, overdue for basic necessities, may be about to change

Toilet paper. First aid kits. Drinking water. These are just a few of the essential supplies one might expect to find in high-traffic facilities owned or paid for by the city that serve more than a thousand people per night.

But San Francisco's homeless shelters, which have been around for about 25 years, have repeatedly fallen short of meeting basic standards or even living up to the policies outlined in their city contracts.

Since 2004, regularly scheduled and surprise spot checks conducted by the 13-member Shelter Monitoring Committee have turned up a range of deplorable and deteriorating conditions in regard to cleanliness, nutrition, and humane treatment of residents — from bloody shower curtains and broken toilet seats to clogged drains and kitchen counters cluttered with dirty dishes. A survey of health and hygiene conditions — from functional sinks to the posting of proper hand-washing techniques — found that only 6 of 19 facilities met basic requirements.

"The Shelter Monitoring Committee makes reports to the Rules Committee, and their reports about conditions in the shelters were very, very disturbing," Sup. Tom Ammiano told the Guardian.

To fix that, Ammiano and a cadre of city staff, homeless-rights advocates, and Shelter Monitoring Committee members are drafting legislation that would require shelters to meet basic standards of care, force compliance through $2,500 fines, and formalize a swifter complaint process.

The Health Services Agency last year had $69 million to spend on housing and the homeless, a portion of which funds nine year-round single adult shelters and four family shelters, as well as four resource centers where homeless people may not find a bed but should be able to access other services, like showers, laundry, phones, and the shelter reservation system.

The management of the facilities is contracted out by the HSA to different nonprofit organizations, including some well-known national groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Episcopal Community Services. The Department of Public Health also handles two of the contracts.

Those contracts stipulate a number of policies, including providing clients with access to electricity for cell phone charging, a guaranteed eight hours of sleep per night, toiletries and feminine hygiene products, first aid supplies, and Spanish translations of printed materials; and a mandate to treat all clients with "dignity and respect."

That doesn't always happen, and the monitoring committee isn't the only watchdog saying so.

The Coalition on Homelessness has been fielding complaints from shelter residents for more than 20 years. A recent increase prompted it to investigate deeper. In May 2007 the group published Shelter Shock, a report based on surveys of 215 shelter residents. The findings: 55 percent of people reported some kind of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. One-third had no access to information in their native language. Thirty-five percent had nothing to eat.

"The Mayor has actually pointed to these problems as reasons to close the shelters," the report states. "Responsible bodies — the Board of Supervisors and the HSA — 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."

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in his Jan. 8 inaugural speech, identified chronic homelessness and panhandling as high priorities of his second term and promised he'd be "redesigning our city shelter system so that they are no longer just refuges of last resort but spaces where homeless San Franciscans can find job training, drug treatment, and encouragement they need to exit homelessness.