Shelter shuffle - Page 7

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

The new law would create baseline standards and streamline a complaint and enforcement process.

According to the HSA, many of these standards are already policies included in the contracts with the nonprofits that run the shelters, requirements such as "provide access to electricity for charging cell phones."

During my stay at the Episcopal Sanctuary, I asked the shelter monitor on duty where I could plug in my cell phone and was told I couldn't. When I asked why not, the only reply was that it's against shelter policy. At Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, Cohen was told he could plug in but at his own risk — his unattended phone would probably be stolen.

I reviewed all of the contracts between the city and the nonprofit shelter providers, as well as the shelter training manual that's given to staff. I was unable to find the same list of policies the HSA gave to the budget analyst. I asked HSA executive director Trent Rhorer how these policies have been communicated to the shelter staff, but he did not respond by press time.

While the ability to charge a cell phone seems relatively minor, its ramifications can be huge. The first time James Leonard met with his case manager at Next Door shelter, he knew exactly what he needed to get back on his feet: bus fare to get to and from three job interviews he'd already scheduled, a clothing voucher so he'd have something nice to wear when he got there, and a couple of dollars for the laundry facilities at the shelter. He also needed to charge his cell phone to confirm the interviews. He said he was denied all four things.

The standards of care, if passed, could improve access to those basic provisions, but some in the Mayor's Office have balked at the estimated $1 million to $2 million price tag. The budget analyst's final report is scheduled for release Feb. 14, in time for a Feb. 20 hearing at the Budget and Finance Committee.

Deborah Borne, medical director of the DPH's Tom Waddell clinic, is a proponent of the standards from a public health perspective. "For me, I'm looking at decreased funding and how can I best affect the most population with what remains," she said.

Dirty shelters can help spread disease outside their four walls, as clients leave every day to use municipal services like buses, libraries, trains, and restaurants, which we all enjoy. Borne says this is something that's been tackled by other facilities that house large numbers of people and is long overdue in the shelters.

"You can argue about whether we should or shouldn't have shelters, but there are no city, state, or federal regulations for them. There are tons of regulations for the army, for public schools and colleges, but we put people in shelters and there's none," she said. To her, San Francisco is on the cutting edge of care with this legislation. "I can't wait until we do this on a state level," she said.

Kayhan said he and the mayor support the spirit of the legislation and have no problems with most of the no-cost items, but the price tag for staffing, training, and enforcement is a concern. "I think when you're looking at how much money you're going to spend on homelessness overall," he told us, "I would rather allocate additional resources to create another unit of housing for someone as opposed to enhancing the service model of the shelters."

Every day he's on duty in the Tenderloin, police captain Gary Jimenez comes across homeless people — or people who seem homeless but aren't.

"One day on Turk Street, I came by a long line of people drinking. I was walking with a Homeless Outreach Team officer, and he said he knew them all. Only about 20 percent of them were actually homeless. They don't want to sit in their rooms drinking. We give people housing but we don't acclimatize them, get them used to being inside.