Cleaning up the shelter mess

Shelters are going to be with us for a while -- and it's inexcusable that the city continues to operate them under such horrible conditions

EDITORIAL Shelters aren't a solution to homelessness. Everybody knows that; everyone agrees. But in San Francisco the shelter system that was set up as a short-term patch to address the growing number of homeless people on the streets in 1982 has, over a quarter century, become a fixture of city life. And as long as the federal government continues to abandon cities and affordable housing and create poverty, this is not likely to change any time in the immediate future. Even the most ambitious local housing program — and there will be a fairly ambitious one on the November ballot — isn't going to create an immediate and permanent place for all of the 8,000 or so people in this city who can't afford a place to live.

So shelters are going to be with us for a while — and it's inexcusable that the city continues to operate them under such horrible conditions.

As Amanda Witherell reports in this week's cover story, the shelter network is a bureaucratic nightmare. Clients get bounced all over town, it's almost impossible to reach any of the shelters by phone, and the directions you have to follow to get a bed are complicated and confusing. Although everyone knows that shelters are now more than temporary housing, it's hard at some shelters to get a bed for more than one night; lots of homeless people spend four or five hours per day waiting in lines for a shot at a bed (and even after that, some wind up not getting a place to sleep). The shelters — mostly run by nonprofits under city contracts — have the feel of prisons; they are strictly regimented and often unsafe and lack even basic amenities like soap. Clients often have to ask for toilet paper.

In 2006 the city's Shelter Monitoring Committee found that only 6 of the 19 San Francisco homeless facilities met even basic standards for hygiene and sanitation. Fifty-five percent of shelter clients who participated in a May 2007 survey by the Coalition on Homelessness 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.

It's no surprise that many homeless people would rather sleep in Golden Gate Park — and as long as the abysmal conditions persist, that problem will continue.

The city's not in the position to create luxury hotels, but it can make the shelters a lot less degrading, dehumanizing, and unpleasant. Sup. Tom Ammiano has already vowed to introduce legislation that would mandate minimal standards of care, and the Board of Supervisors needs to pass a tough bill as soon as possible.

Among the things that need to be addressed:

Basic public health The Department of Public Health is concerned that the shelters can be breeding grounds for disease, and that's a serious problem: there have been some close calls with tuberculosis, and bedbugs are a chronic issue. Many of the shelters lack such basic supplies as hand sanitizer, soap, rubber gloves, and clean towels. For just $15,000, public health nurses from the city's Tom Waddell Health Center, working on a pilot project, were able to make significant inroads in hygiene and sanitation in two shelters. They're now moving on to attack bedbugs and scabies. That approach should immediately be expanded to every shelter in the city.

Safety Some of the shelters, particularly the men's shelters, are lacking in basic security measures. It would be nice to have full-time security staff in every facility, but that might be expensive.