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. At the very least, the staffs need more security and violence-deescalation training, the centers need to have operating and functional locks, and the city needs to mandate that the places are safe enough that clients aren't afraid to stay there.
• A ridiculous bureaucratic labyrinth and lack of coordination Nobody should have to stand in line for three hours per day just to get a reservation for a shelter bed. Nobody should have to trek across town (on foot or on Muni, without the bus vouchers that the shelters ought to be giving out) from one shelter or homeless service center to another just to find out where to stay. There ought to be a one-stop shop (or a series of them) where a person can check in anytime during the day, find a shelter, line up a bed, get a ticket, and be on his or her way. City officials don't talk much about this, but many of the shelter residents have jobs; they go to work all day but still can't afford a place to live in San Francisco. The hoops they have to jump through make the system brutally unfair.
• A lack of reality Mayor Gavin Newsom says he wants to get beyond the shelters, to use them only as entry points into a system that will find treatment, counseling, job training, and permanent housing for all homeless people. We want that too. So does just about everyone who cares about this issue.
But the mayor also talks about getting rid of aggressive panhandling, and he and his supporters complain about the people on the streets who hassle tourists. And nobody seems to want to admit that many of the folks who are typically lumped under the term homeless actually have homes.
The city has managed to lease, renovate, and otherwise make available hundreds of single-room-occupancy rooms, and quite a few formerly homeless people have found long-term residences there. But the mayor's Care Not Cash policy ensures that most of the modest welfare payments these people get are seized by the city for their housing, leaving them with nowhere near enough to survive. So they panhandle is anyone surprised?
It may sound radical, but if the city, state, and federal cash grants to people who for whatever reason can't find work were increased to a level that would support a tolerable lifestyle in one of the world's most expensive cities, a lot of the quality-of-life problems Newsom bemoans and that the city spends millions trying to mitigate with law enforcement resources might go away.
Meanwhile, the shelter residents who do have jobs or who are looking for jobs spend so much of their lives trying to navigate a Byzantine system that they have little in the way of waking hours to improve their economic prospects.
The disaster that is San Francisco's shelter system is the legacy of many years of public policy that allowed the interests of developers, landlords, and speculators to trump the needs of the city as a whole. The housing crisis isn't going away tomorrow but the victims have a right to a basic level of human decency. The supervisors need to make that happen, with dispatch.