The Christmas Eve death of a homeless woman prompts questions about conditions in one of SF's largest shelters
On her very first day at Next Door, a homeless shelter that occupies a nondescript building on Polk Street, Yalaanda Ellsberry met Melinda Lindsey.
"This is my first time in a shelter," Elsberry told us recently. "And I've found a lot of people are very closed off." Lindsey, however, was open and friendly, and they became fast friends.
Ellsberry knew that early on Christmas Eve, Lindsey was scheduled to catch a bus to go visit relatives near Monterey. So she was surprised to see Lindsey still in bed when the overhead lights were switched on at 6:30 a.m. She shook her friend's shoulders, trying to rouse her.
"For some reason, this particular time, I just knew to check for rigor mortis," Ellsberry said. When Lindsey's hand moved in response, "I thought, good – get that thought out of your head, girl." But when she touched her friend's forehead, it felt cool.
Word of Lindsey's questionable condition spread across the fourth floor of the shelter quickly. But, said Ellsberry and other residents we interviewed, staff members were slow to react and basically left the residents to try to revive Lindsey on their own. The residents summoned a woman who was staying there who happened to be a registered nurse, and she began to perform CPR.
The nurse, who asked us not to print her name, said she was dismayed to find that none of the standard medical equipment was available – neither face masks for performing CPR nor the defibrillator paddles that can sometimes shock a person back to life after a heart attack.
Forty-three-year-old Lindsey, who had serious heart problems, was pronounced dead soon after the paramedics arrived. Her body lay on the floor, covered by a blanket, for close to two hours before being picked up by the coroner.
Several Next Door residents told us they were horrified by the shelter's response to the emergency. The nurse said that neither of the staffers who were there "would attempt CPR. They didn't even go anywhere near her."
Ken Reggio, executive director of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), which holds the city contract to run Next Door, said that based on everything he's reviewed, the shelter handled Lindsey's death just fine: "I think we had a client who was seriously ill and passed away in her sleep." He added that residents stepped in to perform CPR while a staffer phoned the paramedics, but that the shelter's whole staff is "trained in CPR and capable of administering it."
But no matter what exactly happened on Dec. 24, Lindsey's death has prompted some residents to band together and demand that Next Door improve its plans for dealing with medical emergencies. They have appealed to outside groups and city government for help, saying they want to be treated more humanely.
"My thing is," Ellsberry said, "I want to see a change."
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Next Door – which used to be known by the catchy name Multi-Service Center North – is one of San Francisco's largest homeless facilities. City officials often hold it up as a model program.
Today the shelter has room for 280 people, divided by gender, and a 30-bed "respite care" program, run in partnership with the Department of Public Health, that's meant for homeless people with health problems. In the past couple of years, Next Door has been transformed into a longer-term shelter where residents can stay up to six months. That alone makes it more appealing than most city shelters, where beds are typically rotated every one to seven days.
Residents we interviewed said their main concern about Next Door is that it doesn't seem equipped to handle medical emergencies. But they had significant gripes about aspects of everyday life at the shelter, including cleanliness and food. And their many and varied complaints had an underlying theme: that staffers often treat residents callously, as though they are something less than human – even when they're dying.
"Workers here talk to us any kind of way because we're homeless," said LaJuana Tucker, who has been living at Next Door for three months. She added that many of the people staying at Next Door are struggling with health issues but that staffers are not very understanding: "If [residents] aren't feeling well and want to lie down, they give them a hard time."
The women we spoke with said the disparaging attitude was also apparent in the shelter's response to Melinda Lindsey's death.
Three days after her apparent heart attack, they told us, shelter director Linzie Coleman set up a "grief meeting." But the residents who attended say that before their grief was addressed in any way, Coleman emphasized that related complaints were to be handled internally and that residents should not take their concerns to people outside of the shelter hierarchy.
Coleman disputed their account, telling us she stopped by merely "to say that I had gotten their complaints and their complaints would be investigated."
She said first-aid kits and CPR masks are usually available throughout the shelter and just needed to be "replenished" and that staffers treat Next Door's clientele with "dignity and respect."
"I've been here nine years and four months, and we've only had seven deaths at the shelter," she said. "And every one but this last one, the staff has done CPR."
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Undeterred by what they say were efforts to silence them, in early January Next Door residents approached the Shelter Monitoring Committee, an oversight panel created by the Board of Supervisors, about Lindsey's death. After taking verbal and written statements from several of them, the committee tried to gather more information from the shelter.
According to a Jan. 9 letter the committee sent to several city agencies, "We immediately contacted the Director to confirm details. Our representative was met with an unprofessional and demeaning attitude and a generally hostile response to his inquiry."
Coleman said she doesn't understand the characterization of her response, but Diana Valentine, who chairs the Shelter Monitoring Committee, told us point blank, "We were treated very hostilely."
More important, she said that when members of her committee visited Next Door on Jan. 6, they found no first-aid kits or other medical equipment on the floors where most residents stay. When they asked staff people whether they'd been trained in CPR, she added, several said no. And in the short time since Lindsey's death, the committee has received another complaint about a medical emergency at Next Door that "resulted in injury to the resident."
"There's been no training, and there's absolutely no first-aid supplies available – and this is weeks after this woman's death," Valentine said. "We haven't seen any changes, consequences, or accountability."
In its letter, the committee asked the Human Services Agency, the DPH, and ECS to launch inquiries into Lindsey's death, Next Door's general policies and conditions, and how city-funded shelters are supposed to respond to emergency situations.
Dariush Kayhan, director of Housing and Homeless Programs for the Human Services Agency, told us he's waiting to see a final report from ECS on the Lindsey incident but that, at this point, the HSA has no reason to think anything improper occurred.
Regardless, Kayhan said, "we're going to use what happened as a springboard," by asking the DPH to do a thorough review of the medical protocols, training, and equipment at each and every city shelter.