Shelter shuffle - Page 6

Inside San Francisco's confounding system of housing the homeless
Photo by Charles Russo

One stall has a broken door, and the only morning conversation is apologies to the occupant.

Even though the contract between Providence and the HSA says the former will provide shelter until 7 a.m., it's a little after 6 a.m. and all 90 of us are back out on the street, rubbing sleep from our eyes, shivering in the dark dawn, and waiting for the Third Street T line. When the train comes, most of us board without paying and ride back toward the city center to get busy finding some breakfast and making preparations for where to stay tonight. I have four hours before I have to be at work.

Shucrita Jones, director of Providence, later tells me the shelter's materials have to be cleaned up by 7 a.m. because the church is booked for other activities. "We turn the lights on at 6. The clients have at least until 6:10 to get up. We encourage everyone to be out of there by 6:15 so we can be clear of the building by 6:30," she says. To her defense, she adds that the shelter monitors often let people in earlier than the contracted time of 10 p.m. and that when the weather is particularly nasty she'll open the doors as early as 8:30 p.m. to let people in out of the cold.

As for the discrepancy between empty mats in the shelters and people going without beds, she blames the reservation system. "CHANGES has a lot of glitches," she says. "It's got a lot of errors the city and county [are] trying to fix."

What I witness isn't as bad as what I hear. In the shelters everyone has a horror story — some are about how they got there, others about what's happened to them since they arrived. Nearly all include a questionable experience with staff — from witnessing bribes for special treatment to being threatened with denial of service for complaining. Their observations echo mine: the administration and certain high-level staffers exhibit genuine concern and an ability to help when you ask, but lower-tier workers aren't as invested in providing good service.

Tracy tells me she sent her daughter to private school and considers herself a victim of the dot-bomb era and an illegal eviction that landed them at the Hamilton Family Center. "We were given one blanket. It was filthy. It had poo on it, and, I'm not kidding, there were even pubic hairs," she says.

She describes the shelter's intake process as similar to that of jail bookings she's seen on television. Six days later she and her child were thrown out. No reason was given, though she's convinced it's because a staff member overheard her complaining about a recent incident involving another client sneaking in a gun. When she was told to leave immediately, she wasn't informed that she had the right to appeal. So she and her daughter hastily gathered their things and hit the dark Tenderloin streets.

A grievance system exists for people who've been hit with denial of service, or DOS'd, the colloquial term for kicked out. But the process can take months. Shelter managers I spoke with don't deny that stealing is rampant, favoritism exists, and complaints occur — the greatest number about staff and food.

General complaints are supposed to be handled within the shelter, though they may be copied to the city's Shelter Monitoring Committee. The SMC submits quarterly reports to the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Newsom, and the public, which show regular instances of inconsistent and unsafe conditions, abusive treatment, and a lack of basic amenities like toilet paper, soap, and hot water.

Those reports prompted Sup. Tom Ammiano to sponsor legislation mandating standards of care for all city-funded shelters (see "Setting Standards," 1/30/08).