In writing about housing poverty and homelessness, it can feel most urgent to put angry energy into pointing out fresh injustice. Sometimes it can be less easy to take note when good changes have happened. But it’s important to note the good things, especially when they can serve as models for improvement elsewhere.
For the moment I’m not going to get into the San Francisco homelessness policy issues that are most in the news — the scary “A Place for All” ordinance and the new Homelessness Commission, both of which are new enough that it isn’t clear how they’ll actually work.
Instead I want to note a relatively upbeat update to a post that I wrote here in August 2021, titled “Why rights in shelter systems matter.” As I explained in that post, 2020-2021 was an awful period in San Francisco shelter and poverty housing practice. The city had built a lot of shelter, camp and hotel programs in a hurry in response to the 2020 crises. They were designed to enclose and maintain populations on an emergency basis, without much attention to residents’ ongoing rights. From responses to my 2020 public records requests, and from stories that I heard through the SF Coalition on Homelessness, on the news, and from local social media, it felt like the city had created an archipelago of unaccountable small worlds — “states of exception” in the sense of special temporary settings where rights could be treated as irrelevant. That’s what was scaring me when I wrote here about how much better SF due process protections could be.
Lots of things have changed since, some of them not good at all. One of the worst was the untimely death of Brian Edwards, a smart, brave and persistent advocate for rights in shelters and shelter-like residential settings. His death set back several efforts — including his attempts, as a member, to change the Shelter Monitoring Committee into a more active investigation agency for complaints about Standard of Care violations and management/staff conduct in the city’s shelter system.
Some great advocates kept going, though. Because of them, some positive changes followed. Not enough. But here’s one I want to talk about:
In 2022 San Francisco extended and codified our local “Shelter Grievance Procedure,” in SF Administrative Code Article XVIII, so that it covers cover most publicly funded temporary residential settings other than tenancy, adult probation settings or domestic violence shelters. Formerly it had been available for traditional shelters only. This was thanks to great work by the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC), the SF Coalition on Homelessness, Supervisor Shamann Walton and others.
Because of this new ordinance, there is a clear way for someone who is threatened with expulsion from a shelter or camp program to assert a right to present their side of the story to a relatively neutral decision-maker. The protections still are nowhere near as strong as the rights held by conventional long-term tenants — but at least formally they’re a big improvement over the opaque management decisions and impractical appeal procedures that applied in some hotel and camp programs during 2020-2021.
The Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee main page on the HSH website provides the current Shelter Grievance Policy and reports that show the long list of facilities now included under its procedures. As the statistics in the reports suggest, it’s likely a lot of difficult situations emerge that the grievance policy doesn’t address, or where residents don’t effectively invoke the rights that they have. There’s a lot more on the site of the EDC’s Shelter Client Advocacy program, where Tyler Rougeau and his crew provide free advocacy to help shelter residents in asserting those rights.
The protections for shelter residents in San Francisco don’t feel like much — but formally speaking, at least, they’re better than the levels of procedural justice that exist in many kinds of shelters and shelter-like living arrangements in the U.S.
It would feel strange to cheer such a qualified victory, but every step toward due process helps, and the expansion of the shelter grievance policy in San Francisco was a big step.