Advocates Fight to Codify Shelter Grievance Policy

On April 7, members of the Board of Supervisors  Government Audit and Oversight Committee considered whether to codify the Shelter Grievance Policy—a critical protection for homeless San Franciscans—in the City’s Administrative Code. Dozens of advocates turned out to make their voices heard in favor of the proposal, and the committee voted to send the proposal to the Board of Supervisors for a full vote. Given that six supervisors have joined Shamann Walton in sponsoring the legislation, the policy is expected to pass when it goes before the full board on April 19. 

San Francisco’s Shelter Grievance Policy is part of the legacy of homeless advocate Arnette Watson, who fought to protect shelter guests from being arbitrarily “denied service,” or simply being kicked out of a shelter or drop-in center. The policy ensures that if you are evicted from shelter or from your transitional housing, you are able to appeal the decision, and it guarantees you a hearing with shelter staff and an advocate to try and reach an agreement. 

This policy has protected shelter residents for almost two decades, but when COVID-19 hit San Francisco, everything changed. Overnight the shelter waitlist shut down, which meant that anyone not already in a shelter bed was turned away and told they’d have to make the best of it out on the street. Those already in shelters weren’t safe either. Not only were residents enduring congregate conditions with minimal access to water—in the early stages of a pandemic for which the main safety recommendation was to isolate and wash your hands often—but they also suddenly lost access to due process if shelter staff members kicked them out. 

Since it was implemented in 1992, San Francisco’s Shelter Grievance Policy has protected shelter residents from unjust eviction, and has become a model for ensuring accountability in the City’s emergency shelter system.  Originally born out of concerns from shelter residents about the lack of due process protections for people facing removal 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. 

“The Shelter Grievance Policy was created by a bunch of us back in the day,” said Paul Boden, executive director of Western Regional Advocacy Project. “People who lived and worked in the shelter programs. The City kept imposing more and more rules and regulations that residents and also staff had to adhere to, and if we didn’t then they would kick us out. I mean they would put people out on the streets—with all the danger and the cops associated with that—just for breaking a rule created mostly by people who weren’t staying or even working in the shelter. If a staff person was having a bad day you could get put on the street for being ten minutes late or for saying ‘f*** you’ to a staff person. Even the City agreed that we needed to do something. It just wasn’t right.” 

The Human Services Commission was historically responsible for ensuring the Shelter Grievance Policy was being respected in the shelter system, but when the City established the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) in 2016, implementation fell to them. When the pandemic started the policy was not officially removed, but Boden says HSH has used the pandemic as an excuse to stop implementing it, in both the traditional congregate shelter system and in the shelter-in-place hotels. Suddenly residents who were told to leave were not informed of their right to due process. 

While the policy is now being implemented again, advocates are pushing lawmakers to write the Shelter Grievance Policy into the Administrative Code to ensure that the City does not abandon its responsibility to shelter residents at the height of a crisis ever again. 

How the Shelter Grievance Policy Works

Due process for shelter residents is crucial for vulnerable community members who rely on shelter beds for safety and survival. Key components of the grievance process include requirements that shelter providers notify residents of their rights; that 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 an 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, according to quarterly reports presented to the oversight body, most people who are issued denials of service are allowed back into shelter.

The vastness of a system with more than 30 emergency facilities across the city also necessitates the presence of an advocate, which gives residents the benefit of decades of expertise navigating the many rules and regulations. Rules vary at many sites, some of which have 30 or more potential infractions.  This circumstance makes it incredibly easy to unknowingly violate a shelter rule. The nebulous nature of the system thus makes accessing an experienced and effective representative vital to the process.  

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 therein.  Shelter residents and service providers alike use the arbitration process to ensure that eviction decisions are being thoroughly reviewed, resolving 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 residents’ stability while they acquire housing.  

Why Codifying the Shelter Grievance Policy Matters

Unhoused people are among the most marginalized 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 the adoption of the policy in 1992, residents have been entitled to eviction protections during their stay in temporary housing. 

“One of many lessons over the past four years is that it is imperative we codify our shelter grievance procedure,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, the organization that publishes this paper. “The City has shut down due process at times and selectively implemented it at others. For shelter users the impact has been tragic, with countless individuals unfairly losing a place to sleep.”

When implementation of this policy is left at the discretion of City agencies, the safety and wellbeing of shelter residents is not guaranteed. The pandemic showed us how quickly we can backslide from the important protections put in place to safeguard the rights of our communities. 

“During the pandemic we saw the City taking advantage of a crisis to not have to do things that it is required to do,” said Paul Boden. “Simple things like even responding to public records requests, scheduling court dates. Things the City has been doing for decades suddenly just stopped the second they had an excuse. And the Shelter Grievance Policy just fell by the wayside.”

At the  Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandleman was the only one to vote against bringing the change to the Administrative Code to the full board. Paul Boden speculates that Mandleman wants to keep the Shelter Grievance Policy weak so that turnover in the shelters stays high, and beds stay empty. Legally, under the 2016 Martin v. Boise decision, the City cannot conduct sweeps unless there are empty beds in the shelters, so having empty beds can be used to justify these brutal procedures.  

It is clear that the Shelter Grievance Policy needs to be codified so that it is not vulnerable to the whims and motivations of our political leaders.