Mayor's Office stalls legislation to create standards of care for homeless shelters
› email@example.com 
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. "I don't think there is any reason to wait to make sure people have access to toilet paper, have access to clean conditions, have access to ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] -compatible beds."
At Ammiano's request, the committee decided to postpone the vote for two more weeks to try to work out differences with the Mayor's Office, and set the next hearing for March 5. If the supervisors proceed without Newsom's support and he ends up vetoing the legislation, it would take the vote of eight supervisors to override and implement the standards anyway.
Newsom and the board have been at odds over homelessness and other budget priorities. Buster's Place, the city's only 24-hour drop-in shelter, is now caught in the middle of the political tug-of-war between budget cuts and shelter improvements. There is a provision within the standards of care legislation that mandates a 24-hour emergency drop-in center. At the time it was drafted, Buster's Place filled this requirement.
However, due to the timing of the midyear budget cuts ordered by Newsom, the Department of Public Health cut off funding for Buster's, effectively closing the center at the end of March (see "No Shelter from the Budget Storm," 2/20/08). It is now unclear how the requirement will be met if the legislation passes.
"We're tired of having centers like Buster's Place on the chopping block," Mecke told the Guardian. "It's ludicrous to keep going in this cycle over and over again." Buster's was slated to close six months ago but was rescued by a Board of Supervisors' budget add-back, and a year before that, McMillan's (another 24-hour center) was forced shut its doors.
The ordinance seems to challenge Newsom's recent efforts to whittle back shelter services. It would allocate more funds to a department Newsom is trying to cut and assure the existence of an emergency 24-hour center, a clear departure from Newsom's recent announcement that he wants to ultimately "get San Francisco out of the shelter business."
The most controversial requirement within the standards of care legislation seems to be its enforcement mechanism, calling for fines of $2,500 levied against the nonprofit service providers for noncompliance. While Kayhan voiced reservations about creating new staff positions to carry out enforcement, the SMC has insisted the fines are crucial and will only be used as a last resort.
"In 2004, the supervisors [created the] Shelter Monitoring Committee because contract compliance was not working," Mecke said. "If there are policies in theory, they should be legalized and should become mandates and be enforced."
Barbra Wismer, the medical director of Tom Waddell's clinic, which frequently serves homeless men and women, urged attendees at the budget meeting to put politics aside and remember the importance of shelter standards, not just for the current homeless population, but for all San Francisco residents.
"If there was a natural disaster like an earthquake, or a fiscal disaster like increased foreclosures, and 1 to 2 percent of people 14,000 in San Francisco had to be put in emergency shelters," Wismer said, "we do not have any standards to protect them."