Shelter client advocate: Why I quit my job

For the past five and one half years, I have been a Shelter Client Advocate. The San Francisco Shelter Grievance Policy states that Shelter Client Advocates “monitor shelter conditions and the application of shelter rules, act as informal conflict resolvers between shelters and their clients, and assist clients in appealing denials of service.” And for four years prior to this, I worked in a family shelter in the City.

Over this nine and a half years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and working with literally thousands of amazing people and families who found themselves without a home and in need of shelter. From my perspective, these folks have been poorly served by federal, state, and city policies. Since the 1970s, our country has undergone a massive redistribution of wealth upwards, to those who already have more than enough. And in that process, the compact of the American government with its people that was the New Deal, imperfect as it was, has been systematically shredded. It has been repeatedly established that the greatest single factor in creating homelessness in America was the massive cuts to federal housing programs that began in the Carter administration (which gave birth to neoliberalism in its current incarnation), and these cuts were greatly deepened and widened under Reagan.

The reality is that homelessness could be solved by redistributing a tiny portion of the $650 billion per year that we currently spend on the war machine. This could happen for roughly $25 billion a year, less than 4 percent of what we spend on “defense” in the Defense Department alone. Twenty five billion is what the Pentagon recently identified as yearly “bureaucratic waste” from 2010 to 2015.  Twenty five billion is also about what Americans spend each year on Christmas, and it’s about 40 percent of what Americans spend on their pets annually.

However, as long as we continue to not really care much about what is happening to our sisters and brothers, or as long as we don’t have to face it directly, or as long as those of us who do care allow this to continue in in our name, ain’t nothing much going to change.

In fact, we may be in for much more displacement, poverty and homelessness if the folks in DC who control all three branches of government can figure out a way to get it done, and we, the people, let it happen.

The City of San Francisco has been faced with the impacts of homelessness on its citizens for almost 40 years. While the root cause occurs at the federal level, there have been numerous attempts to try and deal with the issue on the local level. It’s my belief that despite the best efforts of organizations like the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet, there has never been the political will to actually solve the crisis of homelessness in San Francisco, as the elite in this town tend to be business-oriented adherents of the status quo.

Despite San Francisco’s fading reputation as a liberal or even progressive city, too much of the power is seated in the Mayor’s office for that to have ever actually been the case. I daresay that there have been very few—if any— mayoral occupants of City Hall Room 200 that didn’t enjoy the blessing of the acquiescence of the majority of a white, male and privileged elite. And it is these same elites who the mayor actually works for. So, by and large what we seem to get is lots of focus on symptoms, rather than root causes. Too much focus on root causes might expose those who have amassed and/or maintain their wealth on the backs of the rest of us, like the financial institutions who targeted low-income communities with predatory loans, but are too big to fail and must be bailed out with our dollars no matter how reckless, greedy, or rapacious they have been. And how many of us continue to do business with them as a matter of convenience?

Or the tech firms who manufacture their wares in sweatshop conditions offshore, exploiting untold thousands of workers and natural resources, taking advantage of tax breaks and our city infrastructure to house and maintain their corporate palaces, resulting in  massive displacement of deep rooted local communities of color, making our city essentially unaffordable for most of the rest of us, and then once again offshoring the vast majority of the billions in profit made in that wake in order to avoid having to give anything but the bare minimum back to our communities. And yet many of us, of all economic strata, must have the latest edition of their phones, their tablets, their apps, lest we develop a profound sense of inferiority.

Sounds like complete societal capture to me.

If these thoughts are unsettling to you, and hopefully they are, take a look at something called “The Crisis of Democracy” for a really good dose of cognitive dissonance. This is a study commissioned in 1975 by the liberal internationalist institution known as the Trilateral Commission, whose members largely staffed the Carter administration, and whose members in and out of that administration ushered in the neoliberalism still extant today. The “crisis” was that the ‘60s had brought too much democracy, that too many “special interest groups” (essentially everyone who was not of the white male heterosexual corporate elite) had attained too much power, making it increasingly difficult to maintain the status quo. It indicted the schools, churches, and universities, who carry the responsibility for “the indoctrination of the young” (yes, it states this) for failing to adequately do so.

As Noam Chomsky points out in discussing this publication, we all “are supposed to sit obediently while the intelligent minority runs things in the interest of everyone,” which he cites as the core of liberal democratic theory.

In San Francisco, there have been numerous attempts to deal with some of the obvious symptoms of homelessness, and each mayoral administration has brought with it its own back to the drawing board approach, which would either scrap in whole or part, or attempt to build on the previous administrations’ approaches, inevitably leading to promises to end or substantially reduce these symptoms. When you address symptoms without addressing the causes, you can create false expectations with few real and lasting results, and this kind of approach can also lead to chronic homelessness.

Under tremendous pressure to address homelessness, which has recently become more visible, and therefore more broadly perceived as a problem for housed San Franciscans and businesses, a year ago Mayor Ed Lee rolled out an entire new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. This was touted as a way to bring all the city agencies who deal with homelessness together under one figurative roof, and to roll out a coordinated entry system, with the idea of reducing duplication of services.

While I honestly made a good faith effort to suspend judgement about the new department, from my admittedly limited perspective as a shelter client advocate, things seem even more ossified and unresponsive in terms of clients’ actual needs than under the previous regime in the past year. As an example, the Shelter Grievance Advisory committee asked the Human Services Agency and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to revise the curfew policy around hospitalization in the single adult shelter system in June 2016.  The policy currently states that over the course of a 90-day reservation of a shelter bed and 30-day extension (which is automatic as long as you ask for it), a shelter resident is only allowed to have one excused absence for documented hospitalization. Clients are allowed to have up to three absences within any 30-day period with no penalty other than a written warning. The fourth warning triggers a non-immediate denial of service, which must be addressed in a hearing, if the client wishes to keep their reservation. The fifth no-show in any 30-day period automatically triggers a loss of reservation.

For those of you who are unaware, shelter life is no walk in the park. Folks deserve and are entitled to a night or nights out from time to time. Other folks need it for their own mental health or to be with family and loved ones. If there was not such a high demand for shelter beds in the absence of housing, I would advocate for a no-curfew policy in all shelters. (There are currently almost 1,100 people on the 311 shelter waitlist, and many of those who are waiting depend on going to a resource center and attempting to get a one-night reservation for a bed that has dropped due to someone with a reservation missing curfew.)

If someone has already taken two nights

or two off in a 30-day period, and becomes hospitalized due to a medical emergency, which requires that they remain hospitalized, they can be released from the hospital thinking they have a shelter bed to return to in order to recover, when in fact the bed has been automatically dropped. Even if they have documentation of a three-night stay at a hospital, only one night can be excused, which is not enough to get their reservation back, perhaps at a time when they need it the most.

While the Department of Homeless indicates that they are treating situations like this on a case-by-case basis, and the last time we asked, they indicated they would not be changing the policy at this time. While this is all well and good, they were already treating these issues on a case-by-case basis. Shelter clients, by and large, don’t know that they can appeal to the Department, and front-line shelter staff certainly don’t know this. Just this week, a seasoned front-line shelter staff person told a client with ample documentation that their reservation had been dropped and that there was nothing they could do.

The concern here is that when clients are told they no longer have a reservation many of them simply walk away to try to recover post-hospitalization on the streets. What are the implications for their recovery and future well-being?  What are the impacts on our public health system when this occurs? And what are the implications for a system that treats human beings this way?

This is an easy fix. It requires changing a few words in the policy, and getting the word out to shelters, clients and hospitals, and much of the groundwork for this last step has already been done by the Department of Public Health. The thing is, I don’t want to continue to work in a system that is so unresponsive to asks like this, and so it is among the reasons I will be leaving.  As of this writing, I have no information that anything has changed, and one of my deepest wishes is that as a result of my leaving in part because of this, the Department of Homelessness will be prodded to change the policy. So get active. Contact the City, don’t let this stand.

One of the great improvements to the way that shelter clients obtain the 90-day shelter reservations discussed above came about as a result of a grassroots effort led by the Coalition on Homelessness. After outreaching to shelter users and documenting the countless hours, days and sleepless middle of the night maneuverings it took folks, including seniors and people with disabilities, to be at the front of lines when the reservation centers were giving out reservations, the Coalition brought the issue to the Board of Supervisors, and the Shelter Access Workgroup was born. The workgroup was a consensus-based group of homeless folks, service providers, and city officials that was also informed by the many focus groups at shelters and drop in centers facilitated by members of the Coalition.

The end result was the current 311 waitlist system, which provides fair and equitable access to shelter, gave people back some dignity, and freed up hours and days of their time. While the process it was a little more time intensive, and a bit messier than a top down approach, the end result was very empowering to shelter users, and is a program that actually works.

The vast majority of hypothetical solutions to homelessness have been imposed on folks in a top-down manner. I subscribe to the theory that people themselves are the true experts in their own lives, that they know better than anyone else what they need, and if you impose things upon them in an authoritarian or paternalistic manner, you risk setting them up for failure. Sometimes repeatedly.

I strongly believe that the roll out of the coordinated entry systems for both the family and single adult system, which would change the way shelter clients without long term reservations have to go about obtaining one night beds, as well as the effort to deal with the issue of encampments, and for that matter, all attempts to address homelessness in this town would all have better outcomes if the City employed consensus based models.

Yes, there is a crisis, but there has been a crisis that has gone largely unresolved over almost 40 years. And I agree that time is of the essence, but how much time have we already spent reinventing policies that have ultimately failed because they were not truly informed by and agreed upon by the people they were designed to help, as well as those that actually do the work?

I was somewhat startled to hear that the new department was planning to move into the old Housing Authority building next to the Coalition on Turk Street, but when I learned that the City had purchased the building from the Housing Authority, I began to believe it. I thought a location like this in the heart of the Tenderloin was the perfect place to house a homelessness department. It would mean that those who create and enforce the policies would actually have to encounter the realities of these policies on a daily basis.

I recently heard that there had been a rebellion by the upper-management types, the folks we have been paying the big bucks to all these years to generate solutions, who balked at the idea of having to work so closely to some of the people they are charged with serving. While I can completely believe this is true, I hope this is not the case. And if true, I hope this decision will be reversed. Because right now, it’s sort of emblematic of my perspective of where this department seems to be headed.

I want to give a shout out to the hundreds of people I’ve met and worked with in this field. I am awed every single day by the deep dedication, resourcefulness, patience, compassion and skill you bring with you to this often difficult and challenging work. As I’ve told some of you, there is no way that I could do your job and keep my sanity.

And to my brothers and sisters at the Coalition, the struggle continues!

As to my future, I am leaving my day job but not the Coalition. I am hoping to build on the work I’ve been doing in Restorative Practices, which are based on the premise that when you do things with people, as opposed to to them or for them, they are happier, more accountable, and more likely to make positive change. My dream is to help foster this type of approach in the grievance policy in the shelter system.  Ania Davis, a local and national leader in Restorative Practices says: “Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it, and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice asks who was harmed and what are the needs and obligations of all affected.” And if this approach can actually work in the shelter system, I can’t imagine many places where it won’t.

In the words of Robert Browning, “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be.“ Catch you on the flip side!!!!   

Love, Will 

Make Change Happen. Contact the head of the Department of Homelessness, Jeff Kositsky, at tell him to change the Shelter Curfew Policy around Hospitalization today!