Crisis Response: A Shelter Client Advocate Reflects

As San Francisco starts to slowly emerge back into a false sense of normality, I wonder where that will leave the homeless population staying in “shelter In place“ hotels and shelters scattered throughout the city. Before I cover that, I must recollect what events took place to get us here today. 

Back in March, everyone was on the fence about just how serious COVID-19 would be. No one could fully grasp then just how long we all would be under shelter in place, or what that entailed. 

I was afraid of the unknown just like most of the globe, but it was also a critical moment for action — homeless action, that is. 

Word of the pandemic hit many different homeless nonprofit sectors fast because we serve one of the most vulnerable populations out there. I work as a shelter client advocate, and as such, I am an independent party representing shelter residents who face losing vital services and a place to fulfill their basic human needs in informal hearings held by shelter staff. 

We are a small four-person program known as the Shelter Client Advocates and managed by Eviction Defense Collaborative. While holding onto our grassroots, our program was birthed by Arnett Watson, a fierce, formerly homeless woman of color, and co-founded by the Coalition on Homelessness. So our program remains having ties to the heart of our mission, in one of the largest neighborhoods serving homeless people. 

A handful of advocates, including myself, pushed for the City to respond to safety measures concerning our unhoused residents in shelter, before a shelter-in-place order was officially declared in mid-March. It unfortunately was a long, delayed process and all the while shelter residents were still being forced  from shelters at high numbers. Clients were not being given proper paperwork at the time of exit, therefore missing out on our program’s services. The shelters would do little to nothing in correcting the misuse of forms and would not remedy these serious technical errors, causing shelter residents to have to stay out of shelter twice as long as a normal wait out of shelter. 

We finally succeeded in persuading the City to put into place a moratorium that restricts the causes under which a shelter could expel a resident. Slowly, we started seeing a decline in “denials of service” (DOS) — the official term we use for shelter residents who are forced from shelters/navigation centers. Before, the advocates would regularly see 15 to 25 DOS hearings weekly; later, the number dropped to two to four hearings per week!

A huge victory, but we were far from seeing an impactful change. 

Individual shelters were misinterpreting guidelines from the City’s Homelessness and Supportive Housing Departments and started to enforce rules that were originally intended as recommendations, allowing them to drop a shelter resident’s bed. This infringed the shelter resident’s civil rights as they were not offered access to our services through due process. 

Soon, shelter residents started flooding our main phone lines in search of any clarity as to why their DOS’s were happening. On several calls, our clients were in full crisis mode yet mustered the courage to convey the frustration, hurt and confusion to a complete stranger. 

So, back to the drawing board we went. This time we would get the support of the Department of Public Health, in partnership with HSH, to revise and clarify rules so that no one could be denied services unless they posed an immediate threat to the shelter congregation. These threats included unchecked weapons, acts of violence or threats of violence. Also, a shelter would no longer be able to drop a client’s shelter reservation because they were out for more than three hours. 

Another victory, but our work was still not over.

We also saw an alarming pattern in DOS’s involving shelter residents of color being mislabeled as “aggressive.” Implicit biases are dangerous, and any time a shelter attempts this false narrative, wherever possible, we push back on these unsupported claims against our clients. We also reported staff to HSH, depending on the severity of the case. Yet that didn’t stop the shelter from denying residents service and negatively profiling them— a tactic that dehumanizes the individual and justifies staff’s negative actions toward the client.

In times where fears of housing insecurity plague the back of my mind, only time will tell if shelter residents will get evicted from City-funded hotels once “shelter in place” is lifted. Our program is keeping a close eye on the City and its response to the lifting of the order. If the City continues to go down that dark rabbit hole where sweeps start again and people are violently thrown back into homelessness, our program will be waiting in the wings to form legislation to protect shelter residents’ civil rights.

It is hard to measure the work that my fellow advocates and I really do, because we feel that it is our commitment to combat a systematically oppressive structure through our program’s efforts to bring methods of restorative justice to shelters.

In a strange way, we are a necessary evil. Without homelessness there wouldn’t be a need for our program to exist. However, because that need does exist, and our services are more critical now during a pandemic than ever before. We don’t see ourselves stopping this crucial work anytime soon. So long as shelters continue to operate and shelter residents are still being denied services, we as advocates will continue our due diligence and create a platform for our clients’ voices to be heard.