Beyond beds

Mayor's Office stalls legislation to create standards of care for homeless shelters

What do army barracks, prisons, hospitals, and dog pounds have in common? They all have minimum and legally enforceable standards of care, something absent in San Francisco's homeless shelters. Legislation to fix that problem now appears to be shaping up as the latest political skirmish pitting fiscally conservative Mayor Gavin Newsom against progressives on the Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee met Feb. 20 to hear testimony and discuss proposed legislation that seeks to impose basic requirements on city-funded shelters, improve complaint procedures, and allow fines for noncompliance (see "Setting Standards," 1/30/07).

Prior to the hearing, dozens of activists, city officials, and homeless people rallied on the steps of City Hall in support of the legislation, holding colorfully painted signs with references to some of the proposed requirements, including "nutritious meals," "clean sheets," and "8-hour-a-day sleep."

Marlon Mendieta, program director at the Dolores Street shelter, took to the podium to make his case for supporting the legislation: "It may seem strange that a service provider would be here to support legislation that will cost money and more time and more work — it's easy though. It's an issue of human rights."

The scene was just as lively inside as demonstrators and officials packed the board's chambers. The committee — composed of Sups. Aaron Peskin, Bevan Dufty, and Tom Ammiano (sponsor of the ordinance) — took testimony, almost all of it urging the committee to pass the legislation on to the full Board of Supervisors for approval.

Dariush Kayhan, who has been on the job for six weeks as the mayor's appointed homeless policy director, gave the only testimony urging the committee not to pass the legislation.

"This is the part where we have some concerns, the fiscal part," Kayhan said. "Give us more time, maybe we can plow some of these items — the ones we can agree on — into the existing contracts," he said, referring to the contracts awarded to nonprofit organizations who manage the city's shelters.

While the city's contracts with shelter providers do spell out many standards, a recent Guardian investigation (see "Shelter Shuffle," 2/12/08) and work by the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which developed the recommendations embodied in Ammiano's legislation, found they are often ignored with no consequences. The Guardian also found that people are being turned away from the shelters every night despite vacancies.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in a letter to supervisors obtained by the Guardian, voiced his concern with the fiscal impact of the legislation, citing a $2.4 million price tag, the high end of costs developed by the Budget Analyst's Office, which said the legislation could cost $1.7 million or even less. Advocates of the legislation are confident they can bring its price down.

The $2.4 million estimate assumes a new security guard will be hired at each shelter to meet safety requirements. The legislation does not specifically mandate new personnel and many argue increased staff training and facility improvements could provide cheaper alternatives.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee, composed of mayoral and board appointees, estimates the cost will be closer to $1 million, which amounts to less than half of 1 percent of the city's total projected deficit of $225 million.

"This is an investment in a population that has not been invested in in a long time," committee chair Quintin Mecke said at the hearing.

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