SF homeless shelter changes policy on families amid criticism 

click to enlarge The First Friendship shelter in the Western Addition has changed a policy where all family members needed to be present to secure space after a story about concerns with the policy was published in The San Francisco Examiner. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The First Friendship shelter in the Western Addition has changed a policy where all family members needed to be present to secure space after a story about concerns with the policy was published in The San Francisco Examiner.

An emergency family shelter in San Francisco is now allowing families to reserve beds for the night without having everyone present at the booking time.

The policy was changed this week after The San Francisco Examiner published a story Monday about families who said they were forced to take their children out of school early in order to secure space at the First Friendship shelter in the Western Addition. Some city officials and homeless families had criticized the policy. The shelter can be the last resort for families trying to find a roof over their heads for the night.

Another issue some families had with the shelter is that their children were not allowed to leave once the family checked in, making it impossible for them to participate in extracurricular and after-school activities. London Breed, the Board of Supervisors president whose district includes the Western Addition, said she had been working on a solution.

One homeless mother interviewed by The Examiner, 44-year-old Sabrina Cruz, said her 12-year-old daughter had been leaving school at 1 p.m. so the family could secure beds at the shelter.

First Friendship opens at 3 p.m. daily, and some San Francisco schools get out as late as 3:20 p.m. Once someone checks in, they cannot leave until the next morning except to go outside and smoke.

On Tuesday, the shelter, operated by the Providence Foundation under contract with The City's Human Services Agency, announced the policy change, which went into effect Wednesday.

"We were concerned that families thought that they had to bring their kids early out of school," said Trent Rhorer, executive director of the Human Services Agency. "If that was really going on, then we eliminated that by not requiring them to have their kids when they check in."

The new policy allows one parent to show up between 3 and 6 p.m. and reserve beds for the whole family. That parent must remain on site, and all family members must be in the shelter by 6 p.m. to claim the beds.

Patricia Doyle, director of operations for the Providence Foundation, told The Examiner on Thursday that "the whole process changed as of Wednesday and we are in the process of continuing to make changes." She declined to discuss the matter further.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, who had called attention to the issue, praised the change.

"For families, it means they are not going to have to miss enrichment activities, they are not going to have to leave school early," Friedenbach said. "For children, what the studies show is that when they are homeless, most of their stability comes from their school environment and sometimes from their clubs."

Breed said the concerns over parents taking their kids out of school was new to her, but she was previously in talks with the shelter about relaxing the all-present policy so children could participate in extracurricular activities and "not hold these families prisoner in the shelter." Among ideas discussed was having the Boys & Girls Club provide a van service to and from its nearby Don Fisher Clubhouse so children could access its resources.

Mayor Ed Lee's homeless czar, Bevan Dufty, said that "there are some anecdotal experiences that have been problematic. The City shouldn't be in the position of forcing a parent to choose between shelter and school. It's not a good choice. I don't think that that faces a large number of families. We are working to address it."

Single parents may still be faced with a difficult situation even with the policy change at First Friendship. But a call-in reservation system would help with that, which is what Friedenbach said is needed.

She noted that 75 percent of homeless families are single parents.

"We are exploring options on call-in reservations," Rhorer said.

There are also concerns about there being no showers at the facility, which could cause children to be late for school if they travel to another facility to shower.

However, Dufty questioned whether The City should invest in a facility it does not own.

"I am not sure if it's responsible to spend $300,000 for showers," Dufty said. "There's been a lot of focus on First Friendship. It's a good program. It's a program that I feel good about. It's just really constrained because of the facility."

Dufty said it may be best to find a new site for the shelter.

"I'm looking at some locations that we could maybe have a better facility," he said.

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