Although the city has stopped allowing shelters to take in new clients to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to shelter residents, those residents can be evicted under city policy — putting shelter residents, shelter staff, and shelter client advocates at risk. 

At present, homeless San Franciscans can still be evicted from homeless shelters for violating shelter rules. Some are immediately kicked out until a hearing, held several days later, determines whether they can return. 

Residents shown the door are not offered any alternative placements — and advocates for ousted shelter residents say some homeless people are still being put out in the midst of a pandemic for trivial violations. 

The Eviction Defense Collaborative runs the program providing advocates for residents who have been kicked out of shelters. They are calling on evictions at shelters to be halted except in cases where there is an imminent threat of serious injury – at least for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and the city’s “shelter-in-place” order. 

Eviction notices from shelters are triggered by a violation of shelter rules, including behavior like harassment and domestic violence. The shelter client advocate program, which is the only one in the country, estimates that, after a hearing, about 70 percent of the time its clients at the 32 city-funded shelters, Navigation Centers, and transitional housing sites are able to return. 

A moratorium on shelter evictions seems unlikely.  

“We are reluctant to do that because of safety,” said Emily Cohen, the Department of Homelessness’ interim director of strategy and external affairs. “We want to be sure that nonprofit staff can run safe Navigation Centers.” 

Shelter client advocates said, however, that residents are also being issued eviction notices for nonviolent behavior. Shelter clients can also be sent out for mundane behaviors, like plugging a phone into an unauthorized outlet, arriving past the shelter curfew, using the wrong elevator, or eating food in bed.

Just in the past week, advocates reported 17 requests for hearings from shelter residents, but there is no available data for how those hearings were resolved. In the previous week there were only five hearing requests. 

“We’ve been seeing more violent conflict, because people are more stressed out, but a lot of the denials that are happening are not legitimate,” said Ben Baczkowski, an Eviction Defense Collaborative client advocate. “Some shelters are doing a great job, but for others, due process is not being followed.” 

But the climate for increased tensions — both between residents and between residents and staff — is part and parcel of shelter life at present. 

“People with severe trauma are living in a congregate shelter in a pandemic with as many as 200 people three feet away from each other,” said Baczkowski, who has had some clients struggle with obtaining medicine during the shelter-in-place order. 

As for staff, Baczkowski said, “People are freaking out about working around 200 people in a packed space,” particularly when there is limited guidance from the Department of Homelessness about quarantining protocols. 

There are also health and safety concerns about the shelter grievance process. Residents kicked out of shelter are typically on the streets for several days before their hearings — and a process that allows their return may expose others.  

Baczkowski says that one client who was placed into a shelter yesterday was out on the street for three weeks before being allowed to return. 

Then there’s the issue of the hearings themselves, which are held at the shelters. 

The present conditions are unsafe. It exposes staff to spaces that are not being regularly maintained and brings clients into the shelter that have been on the street for several  days,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, directing attorney of the Shelter Client Advocate program. “There are no attempts made to clean the spaces where the hearings are taking place before or after. There is also often insufficient space to hold hearings, preventing social distancing between people.” 

To reduce potential spread and exposure of COVID-19, shelter client advocates are pushing to hold hearings at the Department of Homelessness’ office instead. 

For those left on the street, there is little help with day-to-day survival. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to say people deserve to be kicked out of shelter and given nothing,” said Baczkowski. “If anything, these people need support more than anything else right now.” 

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