Since it was implemented in 1992, San Francisco’s Shelter Grievance Policy has protected shelter residents from unjust eviction by utilizing a clear notification process, requiring administrative hearings with neutral arbitrators, and extending to all residents the right to representation by a Shelter Client Advocate. Almost 30 years later however, the Shelter Grievance Policy is under assault by city administrators. In these unprecedented times it is crucially important that the homeless community, shelter providers and tenant organizers demand that the City keep in place the established Shelter Grievance Policy and expand its protections from unjust evictions to ALL temporary shelters in San Francisco.
The Reorganization of the Shelter System under COVID-19
On September 24th, 2020 at a quarterly meeting of the Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee (SGAC), representatives from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, to the express shock of community members and service providers, unveiled a new ‘exit policy’ for shelters and hotels that have been classified as Stay-In-Place (SIP) shelter system. Up until that point, the ten member independent oversight body, which manages the application of the grievance process, had been lobbying city officials for months to formally classify the temporary Shelter-In-Place Hotel program sites under the Shelter Grievance Policy (SGP). Instead of implementing the SGP in accordance with the wishes of the unhoused community and SGAC however, policy makers at the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing unilaterally decided to scrap the longstanding grievance process and implement a new policy which completely negates the due process rights granted to temporary shelter residents.
Changes in shelter governance started to take place in April 2020 as the COVID Command Center (CCC) was created in response to the state of emergency put into effect by Mayor Breed on Feb. 25. In the following weeks, policy makers from the Human Services Agency, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) would begin to coordinate a massive effort to shelter the unhoused community. Referrals into the regular Temporary Shelter System were ended out of concerns of rapid transmission of COVID-19 in congregate shelters, and the shelter system was ‘thinned’ to around 25% capacity by Apr. 8. Since then nearly all of the City’s adult temporary shelters have been reclassified as SIP sites; done in part through the temporary shuttering and reopening of the City’s largest congregate shelters such as MSC-South.
Now operating under the authority of the CCC, the newly created ‘Alternative Housing System’ includes emergency housing units in private hotels, trailers and RVs throughout the city. The CCC is responsible for making referrals to these units, as well as administering the rules and procedures that govern the Alternative Housing System (AHS). Traditionally, the City’s Temporary Shelter System has included all of the programs defined as temporary shelters under the City’s Coordinated Entry Standards of Care mandate; which include adult and family congregate shelters, private room family shelters, Navigation Centers and transitional housing programs. Under that mandate all shelter operators that are connected to the Coordinated Entry system are required to use the established grievance process. However, officials from the CCC and HSH have expressly refused to recognize the AHS as being under the authority of shelter grievance policy, including the Interim Director of HSH, Abigail Stuart-Kahn.
Key Components of the Shelter Grievance Policy and Due Process for Shelter Residents
San Francisco is a city famous -or infamous, depending on who you ask- for it’s stringent tenants protections from unjust eviction. Since the adoption of the Shelter Grievance Policy by the Human Services Agency Commission, it has been understood by policy makers that, while not legally regarded as tenants, shelter residents are entitled to eviction protections during their stay in temporary housing. The grievance policy is designed to provide shelter residents with formal avenues to resolve disputes, offer protections against unjust evictions, and to hold service providers accountable to shelter residents.
Originally born out of concerns from shelter residents about a lack of due process protections for people who have faced evictions from the City’s homeless shelters, the Shelter Grievance Policy mandates an innovative fair hearing system that provides a formal, neutral and transparent process for residents to address allegations made against them. Key components of the grievance process include requirements that shelter providers have an efficient notification system; residents are entitled to a quick and fair hearing, which includes an arbitration process where a neutral arbitrator makes independent judgments on matters of dispute; implementation of clear standards of documentation and rules of evidence; and provides every resident facing eviction a resident advocate trained in shelter policy and the grievance process.
The first step in the appeals process is an informal hearing conducted by shelter management. During an informal hearing the impacted resident and their Shelter Client Advocate representative meet with shelter management to debate the merits of a Denial of Service, or to work out a mutual resolution; at this stage of the appeal process shelter management makes a decision to uphold, modify or overturn an eviction. If the eviction is upheld and the client does not agree with the decision, the resident may appeal the hearing decision at an independent arbitration. When the rules are properly applied and residents are adequately represented, 70% of people who are issued denials of service are allowed back into shelter.
Arbitrations are a crucial component to the Shelter Grievance Policy because they are a formally independent appeals process intended to remove conflicts of interest between City administrators and individual service providers. The arbitrator’s function is to interpret shelter rules and operating procedures, and to be the final decision-maker regarding disputes to their application theirin. Shelter residents and service providers alike utilize the arbitration process to ensure that eviction decisions are being thoroughly reviewed, resolved of conflicts of interest by transferring final decision making power away from shelter and city staff to attorney arbitrators, and also to equalize the balance of power between resident, service provider and funding agency.
Taken together these procedures create a robust system of due process rights which go a long way in protecting the stability of residents’ housing.
The Alternative Exit Policy
The Alternative Housing System Immediate Exit Policy proposal put forth by the COVID Command Center, represents a hard departure from the best practices established through 30 years of experience with the Shelter Grievance Policy. The changes made therein are a complete negation of the due process rights shelter residents have been historically granted in San Francisco, and only serves to undermine the agency of shelter residents in the steep imbalance of balance of power between City administrators, service providers and themselves.
Under the new AHS Exit Policy, the fair hearing and arbitration process will be entirely replaced by a hotline phone number and City email address. The hotline number will be intermittently checked by a CCC staffer, who is required to respond to readmittance requests within 5 business days (although getting a response can take weeks or even months). Under the new policy residents have no right to an informal hearing with shelter management, or to have their case heard by an independent arbitrator. These changes formerly remove all neutral decision making or participation from the eviction process, leaving all decision making power in the hands of shelter staff and City bureaucrats.
Furthermore, all standards for documentation and evidence are left entirely to shelter staff — many of whom are not properly trained to handle sensitive case material, and who often improperly document ‘critical incidents.’ The rules of evidence are also extremely permissive, allowing service providers to take action against residents based solely on allegations made by other residents and not witnessed directly by staff members, which has been considered historical best practice. Without adequate standards of documentation or evidence, it is nearly impossible to mount a defense or challenge unfounded accusations. This leaves residents who have been evicted without due cause no avenue to challenge the merits of the allegations made against them.
Once a resident has been evicted they are required to submit a ‘readmission request’ to the City challenging the allegations made against them. However this is a near impossible task due to the fact that staff are not formally required to provide documentation of alleged rule violations, and often residents are evicted without being served a notice at all. The new AHS Exit Policy does not require service providers to use a standardized notification system; so without access to all available information, or even being told what the specific allegation or infractions was — as it happens in many cases — the new readmittance system removes any ability to face one’s accusers and forecloses any opportunity for dispute resolution.
Technology also becomes a huge barrier to mounting an appeal because many people in the unhoused community do not have regular access to a computer or phone. For many former residents this barrier is insurmountable because once on the street, gaining access to a computer or a space to charge their phone is oftentimes a matter of chance. This is especially true during Covid-19 where many places unhoused people go to access these amenities are now closed. It also goes without saying that living on the streets is incredibly harsh, and often people’s phones and computers are stolen. Thus, the sole reliance on technology in the appeals process creates an insurmountable barrier for a vast number of residents who are unable to afford or maintain the required devices. Many former residents who have submitted appeals have done so by utilizing a Shelter Client Advocate to manage the process for them while they try to check in regularly. However, since a response from the CCC can take as long as a month, many people give up because they simply do not have the ability to maintain the required communication.
Under the new policy the right to representation by a Shelter Client Advocate will also be eliminated. This deprives residents access to a robust defense team and the professional technical expertise of longtime advocates. Taken together, the Temporary Shelter System under Coordinated Entry, and the SIP Alternative Housing System under the CCC, represents as many as 80 individual shelter sites, each of which have their own particularities. In ‘normal’ times, but especially during the pandemic, residents are routinely transferred between several different shelter sites, operated by a nebulous system of service providers and City employees. The expectation that residents can or will have a working knowledge of all the rules and operating procedures of all the sites, as well as the Coordinated Entry and SIP Alternative housing systems, is an entirely unrealistic expectation. Eliminating access to Shelter Client Advocates leaves residents at a distinct institutional disadvantage and undermines their ability to interact with the City on equal footing.
Truth be told, the proposed AHS Exit Policy is not an appeals process at all, or even an avenue for dispute resolution. In reality, all ‘requests for readmission’ are at the mercy of unnamed City bureaucrats, the decisions of which are entirely shielded from independent review. The AHS Exit Policy effectively allows residents to be evicted without any documented proof of an infraction and leaves them with no formal avenue to appeal decisions. The omission of these key due process components represents an intentional and massive transfer of institutional power away from homeless people to unaccountable government bureaucrats. The consequence of which only serves to disempower shelter residents and the unhoused community.
Shelter Residents Demand Eviction Protections in Shelter
Unhoused people are considered by many to be the most marginalized class of people in our society. It goes without saying that a commitment to social justice for unhoused people therefore must include a right to stable housing, no matter how informal their tenancy status may be before the eyes of the law. The rights that shelter residents are entitled to in San Francisco through the Shelter Grievance Policy are unique in the entire country, and since its adoption in 1992, residents have been entitled to eviction protections during their stay in temporary housing. There is no doubt that the AHS Exit Policy represents a hard departure from best practices established through 30 years of experience, formerly negating key due process procedures granted to shelter residents. More now than ever in these dire times it is crucial that policy makers double down on their commitment to justice and implement the Shelter Grievance Policy in the Alternative Housing System immediately.