Why rights in shelter systems matter

Last year’s initial deep lockdown in San Francisco led to emergency suspensions of democratic rights that we are still undoing one by one.

At this point many oversight bodies, such as the Police Commission and Local Homeless Coordinating Board, have resumed meeting after suspensions that it took some kicking to release. Already it’s strange to remember that, in spring 2020, some city-contracted shelters imposed 23-hour lockdowns on their residents and the city let them do it.

One area where we have not recovered from emergency suspensions of rights is in the new institutional shelter and camp systems for displaced people that are still operating without fair attention to their civil or democratic rights.

There is a whole second-class tier of U.S. housing that isn’t quite housing, where people are told or required to agree that they aren’t real tenants. They are denied tenants’ rights, and they are made to live under institutional conditions. They endure hallmarks of unfree life such as limits on entry or exit, visitor bans, and intrusive surveillance by guards. Group shelters are in this world, and most outdoor tent camps, and some individual hotel programs. In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, hotels that are physically set up for pleasant, respectful guest or tenant experiences have been converted into regimented institutions.

San Francisco is one of the few places in the United States where residents of conventional shelters have access to a grievance procedure to resolve disputes or contest expulsions (“denials of service”), and where they also can get help from professional advocates in the hearing process. It’s a genuine protection, though it’s still a case of “lite rights” compared to the right that a conventional apartment tenant holds to contest eviction in a real court process.

Access to the grievance process is a significant enough right that, as in any bureaucratic system, San Francisco’s shelter system has worked around it by creating new statuses where the right doesn’t apply.

In San Francisco, even before the 2020 COVID lockdown, the grievance procedure applied only in conventional shelters but not in “Navigation Centers.” it wasn’t clear — and still isn’t — what rights exactly apply to people appealing expulsions from “Navigation Centers.” And yet, comparatively speaking, Navigation Centers have been popular despite the lack of procedural rights because they offer some social service and housing opportunities and they don’t separate households or reject pets. Before the lockdown they had capacity for about 900 people.

Likewise the “Vehicle Triage Center” — a drastic-sounding name for a corral where RV residents could park — existed before the 2020 lockdown. The center had served 75 people as of a report in February 2021 but it has now closed. As far as I know, residents did not have access to the shelter grievance program, nor to its advocacy services.

The lockdown suspended most expulsions from shelters for humanitarian reasons but that didn’t necessarily expand the nexus of shelter life to due process.

Meanwhile under the lockdown, San Francisco created two more systems of institutional shelter under legal statuses carefully not defined as tenancy, under rules that don’t recognize rights. These are the “Shelter in Place” (SIP) hotels and the outdoor tent camps, referred to as “Safe Sleeping Sites.”

The SIP hotel program probably saved lives — but instead of treating residents as hotel guests or as tenants, the program imposed a shelter-like institutional regime. It enforced strict visitor bans and curfews and denied residents the keys to their own rooms. Despite lots of questions from advocates, that program took a long time to set up even basic protections against arbitrary decisions by staff, up to and including expulsions from housing.

That program is winding down now but there is no guarantee that any successor program will restore SIP hotel residents to the status of tenants. At present it appears many may wind up back in congregate shelters, worse off and at greater physical risk than during the first anxious months of the COVID pandemic.

The outdoor tent camp program continues to operate under guard-enforced rules without clear rights, and without ways for residents to participate in governance, and without the level of permanence or trust that would allow residents to invest in building better structures than their own individual tents on pavement.

There is currently an effort to broaden application of the Shelter Grievance Policy to more locations than traditional shelters only, but efforts to expand and standardize rights for shelter residents remain stymied. See, for example, the December 2020 minutes of the Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee.

This notion that people should have rights when they live in publicly subsidized or organized shelter settings runs up against a range of objections from liberal to conservative. In different ways, they all express fear that if residents achieve recognition of their rights — or comfort, privacy or a sense of ownership — they might settle down in place. Their current corners of the system might become permanent homes.

At present our secondary system of not-quite-housing shelter and camp placements truly does contain thousands of people for long years at a time. So any fear of causing people to remain permanently in the system would be lagging behind the facts.

But from a political point of view, fear of permanence really means fear that people living in the shelter system will “unslum” in Jane Jacobs’ sense of the term — that, instead of living in a constant state of disrupted temporariness, residents with rights might put down roots to build support networks, stability, physical comfort, and even personal wealth.

It’s strange to think that fear of permanence might be a motive for system administrators who don’t consciously bear ill will toward the people who they subjectively intend to help — but it does seem to be truly a factor.

The fear is often expressed as hope that people can escape from the system entirely to conventional apartments or houses, or as an urgent call to move success-story residents up and out of the system, to make room for incoming “clients” who are more obviously needy.

Also, I think that sometimes program administrators who know better are acting under a sense of pressure to reassure the less informed broader public that the affordability mismatch is temporary, or that it’s conditional on some factor under individuals’ control, such as job training. Because if they admit that housing is continuously unaffordable to large numbers of people who are trying their best to succeed, that would mean calilng into question the commonly held assumption that prosperity is deserved.

Since “housing exits” don’t often appear at present, institutional fear of permanence just serves to churn the same people through different parts of the system in a permanent state of instability, slowly wearing them out, slowly using up their time on this earth.

Our San Francisco problem of long-term churning in a secondary housing system without permanency or tenants’ rights is an example of the permanent limbo of displaced persons’ programs, as described in a very good new paper by Hanno Brankamp for Antipode: “Camp Abolition: Ending Carceral Humanitarianism in Kenya (and Beyond)“. (I’m grateful for this link to Alex Vasudevan, who posts as @Potentia_Space on Twitter.) A lot is painfully familiar in Brankamp’s label, “carceral humanitarianism,” and in his discussion of camp residents’ protests against the waste of “life-time.” When he writes about “the indefinite warehousing of people who are literally forced to move but not allowed to move on,” that sounds like San Francisco.

We can’t abolish San Francisco’s own “carceral humanitarian” shelter system overnight, but something we can do as a step toward abolition is to seek recognition of clearly defined and respected rights for residents of the shelter system. It doesn’t change an unfair system to create a right to appeal an eviction in a formal hearing with written rules, or to begin to grant oversight powers to a residents’ council. But it does take a step toward recognizing that residents of the system are full legal persons — full members of a community where there is no minimum housing status requirement to have civil or civic rights.

As a start, San Francisco could extend at least the minimal set of rights under the shelter grievance procedure to all of the hotel, camp and shelter programs, but that clearly isn’t enough. It’s not my place to say what might be “enough” but I can suggest it would start with “residents” of shelter sites having rights as tenants, and tenants having more rights in general.

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