Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Fear of homelessness enables evictions

Josh Marshall, who is a smart guy, found himself far from alone today on Twitter in wondering where landlords think more tenants will come from if they keep evicting massive numbers of tenants.

Unfortunately, landlords and marginal tenants know the answers to that question. They know landlords can hold spaces vacant — essentially, can go on strike against the public — and then they can reopen at jacked-up rents. And that people will show up to pay those rents.

Why? Out of fear of the alternative. The old proverbial fear of the poorhouse.

Anyone familiar with what Americans call “homelessness” knows that we live in a two-tier housing system. The upper tier is what comfortable people think of as “housing,” with legal ownership or tenancy rights, privacy, freedom of movement, and rights to trappings of full social membership such as voting, mail delivery, maintenance, utilities, and a fair chance at being the beneficiary, not the victim, of a call for public services.

The other tier is the system of quasi-carceral or criminalized living arrangements that, in the U.S., people broadly call “homelessness.” Housing that isn’t officially housing; resident statuses that don’t carry tenancy rights. Shelters, programs, encampments, vehicles, camps. [Because this matters, I want to add that people without formal housing often can meet requirements to register to vote in accordance with local law, and there are many ways to receive mail — but it’s all just more difficult. So many things are just more difficult without housing that counts as housing.]

Landlords know tenants have to fear the abusive conditions in the U.S. homelessness sector. Tenants make terrible sacrifices to hang on to first-tier tenancy status for fear of landing in the second-tier settings.

If there were a right to housing in the United States, or any floor under the level of mistreatment visited on unhoused people by municipalities, institutions, and respectable phone-wielding denizens of the upper housing tier — then housing owners might be filling vacancies instead of hoarding them. Because prospective tenants would have bargaining power to turn down a bad deal.

As it is, we live in a housing economy where displacement works in a nautical sense: the emptiness of closed spaces that were people’s homes, and the pervasive misery of the people excluded from homes, are exactly what floats the price of housing higher and higher.

This is why to call your members of Congress this week about rent relief. All of our futures depend on keeping as many people as possible from being thrown into the routinely abusive living arrangements that we categorize as “homelessness.”

A disclosed document about health in shelters has me looking for context

The SF Department of Public Health disclosed this protocol document to me last week in a response to a records request. It’s dated May 30, 2020 and appears to be a working document about health rules for reopening and expanding congregate shelters, where people share indoor air.

[Update 8/6/20: I received these two additional documents, both with material from late June 2020, as part of a records response provided by HSH yesterday. While they don’t make current testing and congregate policy fully clear, they do help with understanding how policy thinking has been developing about testing and precautions in congregate shelters:

There has clerly been a lot of careful thinking and talking since May. Intentions and outcomes aren’t the same thing. The shelters still frankly sound scary to stay in. But this is helpful to see.

Text below here refers to the May 30 document:]

The text of the [May 30] document suggests it isn’t final, and it isn’t clear if shelter staff are following these principles currently — but as far as this document goes, it’s worrying. Advocates who work more directly with shelters note two worries: (1) the screening provisions do not include a call for testing on entry to shelters, and (2) the plan calls for shelters to place people categorized as having recovered from the virus together with people who are categorized as COVID-negative.

I’m trying to imagine living under conditions where it’s at least prudent, and sometimes even required, to wear a mask all the time, even to sleep. Not in a jail. Not as punishment for crime. As a consequence of the state of the housing market and the fading of San Francisco’s efforts to provide individual living spaces to people in need.

People in emergency housing have rights as well as needs.

I’ve been filing public records requests lately, trying to understand this expanded institutional system that San Francisco is creating to contain unhoused people in many different temporary and informal living arrangements: COVID emergency hotels, shelters, “Navigation Centers,” official outdoor camps, RV camps and corrals — and the increasingly landlord-like supervision and spacing of informal tent sites on public streets.

Some of the documents that I’ve received from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing are about rules and procedures that don’t say enough about due process or ordered liberty under law. (in fairness to HSH, these documents really emerge mainly from the SF Human Services Agency.) I want to talk here about the documents on handling “exits” — that is, expulsions — from emergency “Shelter in Place” hotels. Not only from concern for the hotel residents themselves. Also because I worry that what happens in these emergency hotels could be the start of a trend affecting a larger segment of society.

These documents are provided to me with little administrative context, and they are probably just snapshots of official thinking that is changing by the moment. San Francisco’s emergency housing/shelter system is still in flux. Some emergency hotel sites are about to close; at least one outdoor camp (Everett) will soon have to close because it’s on the property of a school that will reopen; the city is reportedly offering hostel or congregate shelter beds to more people and setting up new congregate shelter sites.

I also don’t know how many people are directly affected as yet by these documents. Maybe not many. The emergency hotels have strict rules — apparently even nightly curfews. But the current announced practice is that residents don’t get expelled from “Shelter In Place” hotels except for outright violence. As far as I’ve heard, there haven’t been many actual expulsions.

I still think it’s important to be reading and discussing these documents now, before the new poverty institutions become fully locked in, as a way to work on reversing the erosion of what Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights.”

Before a person can assert any right, they first have to be seen as a kind of person who counts as being capable of having and using rights — someone who can assert a right without being mocked, ignored, punished, or patted on the head and offered a cookie. Do unhoused people on San Francisco have the “right to have rights”?

Relatively recently in SF — even under the agency-stripping “Care Not Cash system” — most marginally housed people, if they managed to get a room or apartment long-term, also automatically got rights as tenants. At a minimum, that meant rights to contest eviction in a recognized formal procedure — to insist on a correct formal notice and a fair chance at a day in court. Not that it has been easy to assert eviction defense rights — lots of people move out informally when told to do so, rather than take the risk that a formal court eviction order might damage their record for the next potential landlord. But tenancy rights are still better than second-class non-tenant status.

People don’t count as tenants if they’re in these lower-tier living arrangements — hotels in “programs” such as the “Shelter in Place” housing; shelters; navigation centers; publicly managed or contracted outdoor camps, or the publicly supervised situations where people are selectively allowed to live in tents in public spaces. Instead of tenants with rights against eviction, people in these situations are called “residents” or “guests” or “participants” — or, in the case of sidewalk camping, people are referred to simply as “tents.” They don’t have defined rights to a court review of eviction — only flimsy “appeal” or “grievance” rights to complain about an expulsion after the fact, often managing contacts and paperwork from a position of homelessness.

The best, most solidly established eviction appeal system in San Francisco’s system of second-class, non-tenancy living arrangements, is the Shelter Grievance Policy.

The shelter grievance system at least has provisions for formal hearings to contest evictions or penalties for supposed rule violations. Unlike most shelter situations elsewhere, SF shelter residents can get help with grievances from a team of four advocates with the Eviction Defense Collaborative. But it is still not clear if the city will agree to expand the advocates’ assigned area of work beyond the city’s traditional shelters — to the Navigation Centers, the new emergency COVID sites, and so on.

Even in shelters where the grievance policy applies — it isn’t good. RK Johnson, a shelter client advocate, wrote this article recently about what is and isn’t working under the strain of the pandemic emergency. She describes a lot of arbitrary action, rights violations and profiling: And the grievance policy is a “lite” version of due process even when it’s working as designed.

It’s unsettling in the recent documents for the emergency hotels to see the word “protocol” used for eviction appeals. That’s a medical word — not a word from the vocabulary of due process rights in, for example, public benefits hearings or HUD regulations. It implies someone was thinking about a resident’s decision to claim their Constitutional rights, not as a welcome test and expression of the norms of democratic equality under law through an assertion of inalienable rights, but as a behavior to be managed in a patient. It’s medicalization, or behavioralization, of what happens when a person who is basically viewed as rightless insists, inconveniently, on asserting a right.

Here’s the main document that mentions an appeal “protocol” if you want to read it. It explains how staff and managers should gather information about the appeal, decide if it provides enough information to be worth answering, decide what response to offer the “guest,” and communicate it to the “guest” within five business days after the appeal. “Response should clearly explain the steps the guest must take to accept the offer.”

The “exit” notice provides an email address and phone number to submit an appeal, but it isn’t clear how an “exited” person can most effectively act without a phone or stable address to stay in touch with the adjudicators. After some pressure, contact information to ask the Shelter Client Advocates for help got added to the notice form. But it isn’t clear what process the expelled person may invoke to review documents and other evidence of the alleged grounds for expulsion before the hearing; nor what chance the expellee will get to present evidence; nor what standard the expellee must meet to show that the expulsion was unfair; and what choice of remedy is available to the expellee following a successful appeal.

For example — and I ask this for a raft of particular reasons — what if someone claims they were kicked out for being the target of a harasser or domestic abuser? Or that the staff mistook effects of a disability for misconduct? Or that the expulsion followed from some other illegally discriminatory double standard?

Here are some notices from the disclosed documents that are written for presentation to the “guest.” At least these use “procedure” rather than “protocol”. But they define rights and procedures far less protectively and clearly than the general legal system does for people with tenancy rights:

It isn’t clear what exactly you have to do to win a hearing — for example, what a person would have to prove to show that an “exit” was caused by unlawful discrimination, and what remedies they could choose from if they did prove they were unfairly kicked out. It’s as if the resident doesn’t get the dignity of choosing what claim to assert and getting a yes or no answer whether their rights were violated or not. There’s only the rightless population-management question of whether a behavioral incident is appropriately handled and a placement assigned appropriately.

This new grievance procedure calls for escalation from on-site staff to the “Compliance Coordinator” to the “Whistleblower Program.” It doesn’t describe a hearing officer adjudicating a hearing — it describes review via chain of command. This isn’t adequate. The whole point of a hearing process is for an independent adjudicator to step in from *outside* the chain of command and decide who is right.

So, fundamentally, here’s why I worry:

If a “rights lite” system can be applied in COVID emergency housing systems without substantial legal or public objection, then it can also happen to other new and growing segments of the expanding lower tier in our two-tier system of housing and shelter.

If that happens, thousands of people could be stuck in new institutional settings where they do not count, to their keepers, as fully free and equal community members.

And the rest of us could end up having to live (even more) cautiously and obediently for fear of ending up there.

Personal Justice Denied

How to muddle through fairly?

Front edge of the Sutro Baths seen from southwest edge of the ruins. Ocean surf seen at left is held back by a wall studded with stumps of rusty steel bars. Rubble has been filled in between that and a wall with a flat top about 18 inches wide on which people are walking in the distance. The inner wall holds in an extensive pond, seen to the right. Cliffs ahead, headlands in the distance.

We were out at Ocean Beach yesterday. Beautiful weather. Lots of families and tourists out exploring the ruins of the Sutro Baths. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the ruins are affected by the shutdown, but they’re open. Yesterday visitors kept edging past each other on the uneven tops of those old masonry pool walls. It made me nervous: no handrails, and in places those narrow walking surfaces run between open box-sided pits full of rain and salt water. No rangers in sight. But the gift and coffee shop was open at the top of the old cement stairs — the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy runs it.

As Sarah Kendzior has argued, the shutdown serves Republican privatization goals. The longer this goes on, the more we’ll substitute private systems for public ones. Fewer public entitlements could mean more privately invented rules about who counts as a member of society — and what it means to be left out. More latitude for discrimination and corruption. Less traction for assertions of rights — to benefits, to services, to equal protection of the laws.

So if the shutdown drags on, and charities start to fill in for more governmental functions, the charities in turn have some thinking to do about rights and governance. Continue reading

8th and Mission, last night

Deep puddle, green traffic light, illuminated bus stop, ghostly impression of a bicyclist. Windowless PG&E building with spiked iron fence and strip of bright light. So very Fritz Lang.


P.S. Been seeing that SFSU banner ad everywhere: “We make discovery happen. ” Clearly not written by lawyers.