People wait outside the Next Door Shelter on Polk Street on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Lack of information hampers city oversight of shelter conditions

After an increase, complaints about the conditions of homeless shelters in San Francisco significantly declined last year. But officials said Monday many complaints could be going unreported to The City.

The number of complaints about shelters decreased by about 20 percent in 2018 to 174, according to a report by the Shelter Monitoring Committee that was presented to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board Monday. But that’s still higher than the 121 complaints made in 2016.

The top three things those who stay in the shelters are complaining about has remained the same. The largest number of complaints last year, 125, were about unprofessional behavior from staff, followed by complaints about safety issues. The third largest number of complaints were about restrooms, such as lack of soap or toilet paper.

The complaints often include multiple allegations. The total allegations from the 174 complaints was 343, down somewhat from the previous year’s 362. While complaints overall were down last year, allegations around staff behavior – staff is supposed to “treat clients equally, with respect and dignity” – continued to increase, reaching 194, an increase from the prior year’s 182, the report said.

But a number of complaints about the shelters are apparently escaping public disclosure and that could have consequences for The City’s efforts in trying to shelter people living on the streets.

Del Seymour, co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, pointed out during Monday’s hearing that complaints often go directly to the staff of the nonprofits running the shelters.

Another set of complaints made when someone is denied service at a shelter are tracked through Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee. In September 2018, for example, there were 304 reported denials of shelter.

“There is a really three batches of complaints,” Seymour said. “I’m sure the largest one is probably from client to the front desk at the site. That could be in the four zeroes easily. Now do we want to know that? I don’t know.”

Scott Walton, who manages shelter programs for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that “we do not have an automatic reporting system for all complaints that our providers get.” He added that “we have not at this point asked them to track every complaint that they have received.”

While The City has had a Shelter Monitoring Committee since 2004 and standards of care set for the shelter system by the Board of Supervisors since 2008, many of those using the shelters may remain unaware that the oversight body exists.

Joseph Kenan, a recently appointed member of the Shelter Monitoring Committee who previously lived for a year in a San Francisco homeless shelter, said that he was speaking on his own behalf when he said that the data from the report does not reflect the reality of the shelters “as awful as they are now.”

He described them as “terrible” and “unsafe” with staff who are “regularly abusive to our community members who are in the shelter.”

“I can tell you right now, you ask 10 people who come out of the shelters — Next Door or Sanctuary — ask them if you want to make an impact on creating change in the shelter who do you complain to? Not one will know that you can go to the Shelter Monitoring Committee,” Kenan said.

He continued, “I can go on and on about how our system is not set up for you all to understand the problem. If our shelters aren’t good, people stay on the streets. If we want to clean up the streets we have to have good shelter systems.”

The treatment of the homeless by shelter staff was also highlighted in the report’s executive summary by committee chair Mwangi Mukami.

“As our 2018 report reveals, we continue to make remarkable progress with shelter providers to resolve shelter residents’ complaints,” Mukami wrote. “However, allegations of staff’s misconduct and unprofessional behavior remain prevalent. This report should serve as a call on the conscience of shelter directors to provide a transformative leadership approach to diminish this trend.”

Sophia Isom, a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, said that when the issue of shelter staff behavior came up last year “we talked about the need for training.”

“Is there enough training? Are you having a high turnover with staff?” she asked.

Walton said, “We want more training than we have. And yes, there is a high turnover. These are entry level jobs.”

But he pointed to some successes.

There were 68 complaints at Next Door Shelter last year, the most at any one shelter, but that number was down by 55 complaints from the previous year.

“To put those 68 complaints also in context, that is one of the two shelters that operate 24/7 and there are 121,910 bed nights at that shelter in a year. It is 68 complaints among that level of service,” Walton said.

He added, “We are pleased to begin to see the decrease.”

Seymour wondered if training was the answer.

“I don’t know if you can train someone to be a decent human being,” Seymour said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the staff are wonderful. My suggestion would be for the providers to do a better job for selection of a person in their screening procedures. Maybe training isn’t a buzz word that’s needed to make our complaint level lower.”

Walton said if people are not aware of the committees to help them address their complaints, “we need to look at that issue.”

“Over the years we have changed our programs and improved them based on complaints,” Walton said.

He said that past complaints have resulted in shelter staff being fired, but he noted that the city doesn’t directly employ shelter staff, the nonprofits do.

“I feel like the system can work, but it sounds to me like part of it is making sure that all the complaints get to people that can address them,” Walton said.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee oversees about 1,200 shelter beds along with drop in centers. Navigation Centers are not included in the monitoring work at this time, but there have been discussions about including them in the future.

People wait outside the Next Door Shelter on Polk Street on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
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