By Sam Benson
In 2008, San Francisco passed a minimum standard of care legislation for city shelters, a groundbreaking act that placed shelter residents under the same regulatory system that has provided prisoners, nursing home residents, and other communal living residents with basic rights and dignities for decades. Homeless people have been an oft-forgotten segment of this population, but according to Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, there was a dire need for such standards in San Francisco.
In addition to health and hygiene issues such as beds being way too close together and residents not having access to clean drinking water, Friedenbach mentions that, “we found that over half of [homeless people] had experienced some kind of abuse inside shelters, whether it was verbal, physical, or sexual abuse,” a finding that led to the publication of the aptly titled “Shelter Shock” report that catalogued in excruciating detail all of the mistreatment that was going on at the city’s shelters.
The “Shelter Shock” report, Friedenbach explains, was the main catalyst in getting the shelter standards legislation passed. As far as the specific standards that would make their way to the mayor’s office, Friedenbach says, “we got a lot of ideas from homeless people themselves on exactly what they would like to see.” These ideas included things like mandatory provision of hygiene kits, free access to laundry and a minimum eight hours allotted for sleeping each night, “all things that are very huge changes that have really made a difference,” Friedenbach confirms.
Another way in which conditions at the shelters have improved is through the implementation of a standard grievance procedure, a kind of complaint process for the residents. With the passage of the legislation, residents can now submit any legitimate complaints they may have to a third-party Shelter Monitoring Committee, who can then initiate investigations into possible contract violations, with the possibility of a fine of up to $1,250 if serious violations are uncovered. In the past most shelters have had grievance procedures but they have never been held accountable either to a written law or to a third party, Friedenbach explains. In addition, she says, “It’s a good process [for the residents] because they are standing up for their rights.”
Cleveland has followed the San Francisco lead by spending the last four years on crafting this legislation. “Being able to hold shelters accountable to their residents is a big reason why NEOCH, along with the Homeless Congress, feels there is a strong need for similar shelter standards here in Cleveland,” said Director of Community Organizing staff at NEOCH, Brian Davis. San Francisco has paved the way for advocates in Cleveland, and the standards that the Homeless Congress have proposed look in many ways very similar to San Francisco’s. San Francisco’s Jennifer Friedenbach described even the process of creating the standards as “empowering” for the residents of shelters. The Homeless Congress is pushing Cuyahoga County to adopt some form shelter standard passed this fall.
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio