Shelters Must Stop Punishing Domestic Violence Survivors

By Nicholas Kimura

Tucked in against her five-year-old sister, squeezed together between the narrow steel railings of their bunk bed, a young girl sleeps. Below them is an older girl, who neither of the sisters have spoken to much before. She’s often awake later than the sisters, staring at her parents’ phone—posting, tweeting, reading, and diving into all the happenings of the wider world, a space far way from San Francisco and the streets of the Tenderloin—trying her hardest to make the best of her situation. Her screen is the brightest light in the room late at night, illuminating her wide eyes and colorful bands in her braids. Her irises are so deeply brown they’re practically black, resembling a dark, still pond on a moonless night. By now, nearly everyone is sleeping in the room. A cacophony of snores, breathes, and wheezes, rise from the several other bunk beds in the room, almost soothing in its soft erraticism—almost. Adjacent to the sisters, on the top and bottom of another bunk, are where their parents sleep. At this time most nights, the two sisters are sound asleep, awaiting the early morning family routine to get up and out the fastest. Even waking up at seven o’clock can leave them stuck waiting in line for a sink, shower, or even a toilet. They have to be out of the bedroom by 9:00 a.m. promptly. Failure to do so results in a written warning, prelude to a “denial of service” for the family, a euphemism for being kicked out. This night, though, the sisters rest soundly.

But it all happens so fast. Later, the sisters will barely be able to remember what occurr. They’ll remember hearing the screams, the door being wrestled open, the hollow sound a torso makes when being struck. Not much can be seen without the lights on. The heaving mass of flesh before them in the center of the room only a silhouette against the black room. The sisters will remember being in each others’ arms crying for their parents.

By the time the police arrive, nearly everyone is back in their beds, although not exactly sleeping. Some provide witness statements, but most keep to themselves, unsure of what will become of those three empty beds. The sisters are downstairs in an office, swept away by the shelter’s staff when they reached the room. Confused and pleading for their missing parents, the sisters are told to wait. Inside the office, the clock loudly ticks away for what seems like an eternity to the sisters as they sit together holding hands. After a long time, a young police officer enters the office, accompanied by their mother. They’ve never seen her like this before. Tear trails line her cheeks, and the blood droplets on her shirt clearly come from her bandaged head. She is still shaking when they all embrace. The sisters stand there with their mother kneeling beside them, and together they softly weep.The shelter supervisor for this shift is the next person they all speak to. He is an older Black man with a short, grey beard and thin-framed glasses. Seemingly frail, one would discover he is not at all, with a grasp as strong as a bear. He’s been working there for over a decade now, witnessing hundreds, if not thousands, of families live the trauma of homelessness every day.

The sisters and their mother are devastated when they hear the news: They are all being denied services, and must leave the shelter immediately. They cannot return there or go to any other homeless family shelter in San Francisco for 15 days. They cannot even get on the wait list for shelter. They are asking why they have to go if they didn’t fight. Where are they supposed to go? Why isn’t the police protective order from their father enough to appease the supervisor? Why is the victim of abuse forced to go? The supervisor hates this part of the job. He’d rather see families housed, beaming from ear to ear when they get the acceptance call from a landlord. Instead, he’s telling the mother and her daughters they are out in the streets tonight. That it’s not his call: it’s a citywide policy. He tells them they can request a hearing to appeal their denial of service, but that won’t be for a day or two. He calls a hotline for a domestic violence shelter. This time he gets lucky and there is space available now, but it’s out in Contra Costa County, not accessible by public transportation, and is only for one night. With school starting in a few hours, the sisters will get only an hour more of sleep after the trip.

Her anger hasn’t risen yet. The older sister is still scared. She’s old enough to understand what’s happening. She understands that her father abused her mother. She knows her mother did not deserve that. She knows tomorrow will be a tough day and tonight even harder. She understands why her mother refused to go on an excursion to a new place for a few hours of rest. She understands why her mother doesn’t trust these systems any more. She cannot, however, understand why they, the survivors of abuse, are receiving a punishment worse than her father’s. All she can understand about this is that it is unjust and wrong.

A Failed Policy

Stories like this are a tragic experience for many families residing in the homeless family shelter system in San Francisco. Labeled the “Imminent Danger” policy by the City’s Human Services Agency (HSA), it dictates that all family shelters must immediately deny services to victims of violence or threats. This denial of service applies to all City-funded family shelters and lasts for 15 days. It does not matter whether the victim disclosed abuse or staff witnessed it—if you are a victim of abuse, you have to go. Families have lost private rooms they waited for for over six months. They’ve lost a chance to get even the meager services of a mat on a church floor, lost the chance to receive MUNI tokens from a drop-in shelter, and lost the opportunity to work with a case manager to obtain housing.

The rationale is that our homeless shelters have publicly listed addresses, and HSA believes an abuser may come back to the shelter or find the other shelters and attack again. HSA says the policy is to keep staff and other shelter residents safe. That it’s the logical solution to address domestic violence. Under the family shelter rules, a perpetrator of violence or threats is denied services from the shelter in which the act occurs. He or she is still able to access other emergency family shelters and get on the wait list. The children and victims of violence or threats thus receive a harsher and more expansive punishment than an abuser.

This policy has been in place for about a decade. Through information requests, the City admitted that it is not in fact a policy of HSA’s, but rather a policy of each individual shelter. Still, though, HSA publicly defends the policy and makes sweeping changes to it whenever they want, basically dictating the policy. This policy has been particularly onerous for homeless families. As the supervisor of the shelter in the story above told the mother, all families have a right to appeal a denial of service. The onus is on the family—and their advocate who accompanies them through the appeals process—to prove why they are not in imminent danger. The only way to prove this is if the abuser is in jail. Nearly always the abuser is released within a few hours or days.

Tough Enforcement

Shelters are forced to implement this policy and craft their rules to reflect the City’s desires. Some, however, enforce the policy on a scale much broader than intended. Since 2011, there have been over 25 families who appealed these denials of service, with most coming from one emergency shelter. There were definitely more cases, but the City has not been forthcoming with information requests, and only those that went through the appeals process are available. Many more “denials of service” may not have been appealed. The case files reveal this rule has been made to apply to any involvement in a violent incident. One shelter even created a broader rule that punishes “having a passive/inactive role” in a violent incident.

This policy now applies to inter-family threats or violence. If parents from opposing families argue and yell, “I’m gonna get you!” all family members must leave, even those who weren’t even present at the shelter for the threat. In one case, a family was attacked outside the shelter by people who weren’t even residents of the shelter. The staff witnessed the attack and kicked out the victims. Families in their situation are ineligible for both domestic violence shelters and homeless family shelters.

Obviously, this policy greatly affects homeless survivors of domestic violence. Each year, thousands of survivors and their children seek the safety of domestic violence shelters. Unfortunately, demand for these shelters is higher than what the City provides, and more than 1,800 people were turned away in a recent year. This is the reality for many survivors denied services under this policy. Many try to stay with friends or family. Some don’t tell of their plans, betrayed and untrusting of such a punitive and inhumane system. Others return to an abuser, relying on his or her support network to stay sheltered and give their kids some semblance of stability.

If a family member discloses to a case manager that there was a recent incident of physical abuse anywhere, the entire family is immediately kicked out. The abuser, however, can stay, as no rule violation was witnessed. One case file revealed an outcome of exactly that: The female adult told the police her partner hit her in their private room. The shelter director decided to kick her out for being in imminent danger. Her partner, however, was permitted to stay because staff did not witness the violence, a prerequisite for enforcing any rule violations. Many families know of this policy and its harmful effects. Many survivors of abuse are forced to hide the pain they are experiencing for fear of losing the last option of shelter available to them. HSA has always had the ability to change or remove this harmful policy, but no attempts were made to even discuss it.

Community Struggle

After years of gathering information, hitting bureaucratic roadblocks, being misled by HSA, and watching families suffer this needless punishment, community advocates were finally prepared to rid our system of this onerous rule. Together the Domestic Violence Consortium and the Shelter Monitoring Committee (SMC) rounded up all stakeholders: HSA, the shelter providers, domestic violence service providers, advocates, and survivors of abuse. HSA was clearly reluctant to change the policy or take input on changes. Undeterred, the community pushed forward causing a slight tear in the City’s political fabric. The policy was changed to a 15-day denial of service, down from 30 days, and only immediate before 7:00 p.m., allowing families to spend the night if an incident of violence occurred later. But this couldn’t placate the swelling community movement to shred the remaining threads of this oppressive policy. A sub-committee of the SMC was created to address this issue. Most members were appalled when hearing of the consequences for survivors of abuse. Like most people who learn of this policy, they would stare at the person explaining, mouth dropping open slightly, and a look of pure bafflement on their faces when listening to the logic behind it. When doing their quarterly public report to the Rules Committee, a committee of three Board of Supervisors, they informed them of this problematic policy. Stunned, the Supervisors questioned and interrogated Joyce Crum, a leading bureaucrat in HSA, as to why we treat survivors this way. As usual, she defended the policy and spoke of no plans to change it.

By now, however, the tide was turned against HSA. Our legislators were as disgusted as the rest of the community, and wanted action to be taken. This time, the policy would be developed by the community, by those with intimate knowledge of the troubles these families face. Earlier in November, the SMC was finally able to send their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. The recommendations call for the abolishment of the practice of denying services to survivors of domestic violence. The SMC recommended that we continue to provide shelter to survivors, that we expand our domestic violence resources, and that we create a better method to identify domestic violence and offer support—not a response of punishment.

Be it Resolved

On December 8, the Board of Supervisors will vote on a resolution supporting the recommendations of the SMC. The resolution notes the pervasiveness of domestic violence in families and recognizes the dearth of services available to them. The resolution aims to protect survivors of domestic violence.

The resolution’s passage will not be the end of this struggle. Board resolutions are non-binding and mainly symbolic, but hopefully this one will provide enough public pressure to force the bureaucrats to respond accordingly. As a city, we are responsible to ensure that this policy doesn’t harm homeless families anymore. A transparent and open process is imperative for these families and our community as a whole. This can be made into a informative and healthy process. This can be an opportunity to heal together.

Domestic violence is a horrific and traumatizing event for survivors and their families. In our country, it is a reality for millions of women. An estimated one in three women will experience “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking from an intimate partner in their lifetimes,” according to Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion. That is tens of millions of women. Other abuse—emotional, financial, psychological—affects countless more. Far too many of these women become homeless. Our response to these staggering statistics must be calculated and planned in conjunction with survivors themselves. We must create policies and institutions to support and protect them in their recovery. We must heal together and abolish violence between intimate partners. We must stop persecuting survivors of domestic violence.