The truth about shelters

Pub date October 23, 2007
WriterTom Ammiano
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION The San Francisco Chronicle‘s C.W. Nevius wrote an opinion column Oct. 18, titled “City’s Homeless Shelters Clean, Safe but Shunned When It’s Dry,” implying that the conditions throughout the San Francisco shelter system are uniformly in perfect order and that individuals experiencing homelessness are living on the street by choice. The facts, however, tell of a much different reality and of a shelter system that lacks a basic standard of care.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee (, the body in charge of inspecting the city’s shelters and resource centers, recently found that two-thirds of sites did not have immediate access to basic hygiene necessities such as toilet paper in stalls, soap near sinks, and towels — items that many of us take for granted. From a public health perspective, providing these basic items not only helps prevent infectious and communicable diseases; they also represent the foundation for ensuring that our city’s most vulnerable populations are treated with dignity and care.

In January, in response to the lack of basic standards, the Shelter Monitoring Committee formed a work group to create a universal standard of care to address the health and hygiene concerns above as well as concerns regarding facilities and operations. The work group included shelter residents, service providers, advocates, and city departments.

Now being drafted into legislation, the standard of care will provide more than 35 basic, minimum standards in the 18 city-funded shelters and resource centers to ensure equal access for clients, regardless of their disability status or native language. In addition, clients will have expectations that can be met by providing the sites with the resources identified by the committee. These standards will make the sites more accountable to the city and to the people being served by supplying service providers with clear expectations and requirements. After implementation, the standard of care will address environmental health issues before they develop into worse conditions, thus protecting both homeless individuals and shelter site staff. One outcome of increased prevention is the reduction in the number of cases going to SF General and community clinics for treatment, creating fiscal savings that can be reinvested into much-needed services.

San Francisco needs to become the leader in inventive, forward-thinking homeless policy and as such needs to adopt a universal standard of care to meet minimum needs. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, there are standards of care in multiple municipalities across the country, including Seattle, Norfolk, Va., and others, as well in states, such as Ohio.

The evidence is clear — it is time for San Francisco to support the basic needs of our most vulnerable populations. In a society of increasing economic inequity any one of us is one tragic experience away from being homeless. After nearly eight years of the George W. Bush administration and in the midst of a costly unjust war, San Francisco must take a stand to protect the seniors, veterans, and families who stay in our shelter system by ensuring that their basic needs are met and that they are treated with the respect, compassion, and dignity that they deserve as we help them back on their feet and into housing.

Tom Ammiano and Quintin Mecke

Sup. Tom Ammiano represents District 9. Quintin Mecke is secretary of the Shelter Monitoring Committee.