delay shelter expansion
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Plans for a space welcoming to LGBT homeless people are facing more delays after officials discovered that the existing shelter set to house the project doesn't have the permit to operate as a shelter.
The problems involve the Dolores Street Community Services-run space at 1050 South Van Ness Avenue. Work to establish the gay-friendly space began not long after a Board of Supervisors committee hearing in March 2010 in which LGBTs testified about harassment in San Francisco's shelters. Late last year, some involved with the project had predicted that the space would be open by mid-February.
But in an interview this week, Dolores Street Executive Director Wendy Phillips said that in December 2011, "We were ready to go with the rehab work on the expansion for the new queer-friendly space, and when the architect went to pull the permits, they realized our existing space had a permit for social services, but not for sleeping accommodations."
In addition to the shelter, there's a child-care program run by a separate agency at the site, Phillips said. The child-care center runs during the day, and the homeless shelter operates at night. Dolores Street also offers case management.
The shelter first opened about 11 years ago, said Phillips, who took over as executive director in March after serving in the position on an interim basis since May 2011. (She replaced previous Executive Director Eric Quezada, who died in August 2011.) Currently, around 50 men stay at the shelter, Phillips said.
She said they need a conditional use permit from the Planning Department, as well as permits from the Department of Building Inspection to do the rehabilitation work.
"It could take several months, but we're going to do whatever we can to expedite that process," Phillips said. She said her agency needs to get approval from the city's Human Services Agency, which is so far the source of all the money for the project.
"We have to get approval from them for a broader scope of work, which means more money," Phillips said. If the additional funding is approved, the conditional use permit application will be submitted, she said, but "now that it's a broader project, we may have to work with [the Human Services Agency] to look for money elsewhere," she said.
"We've just received the cost estimate from our estimator based on the architect's drawing, which includes bringing the existing use into compliance, as well as the expansion," she said.
The expected cost for the LGBT-related expansion had been $178,000, Phillips said. She said that the new figure would be "maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars" more.
A call to the Human Services Agency wasn't returned.
Phillips said she didn't know how it had been missed that the shelter didn't have the permit it needed to operate.
"The shelter opened before any of the current staff were working here, so I think that because we've been getting funds from the city for so many years to operate it, we just assumed that it had the proper permits," she said.
She said the agency remains on board with the expansion.
"I think it's just going to be an issue of if we can work together to find the resources to make it happen," she said.
Issues involved in expanding the shelter have included redoing bathrooms and setting up partitions. The designated space is in a second floor section that's been used as a classroom.
Gay Supervisor David Campos led the March 2010 hearing on LGBT homeless issues. He, too, was caught off guard regarding the permit problems.
"The reason we wanted to go this route is we wanted to work with an existing shelter that was already permitted," he said in an interview last week.
Campos said if they had known about the site's situation, "We would not have gone this route." However, he said that "given that we've done so much and we know now everything that needs to be done," the decision was to stick with Dolores Street.
"I don't know how that was missed, to be honest with you," Campos, who learned of the permit problem several months ago, said, "I couldn't believe that when we were told that."
Campos expressed support for Phillips. He said she's "a very capable woman who is doing a great job."
Planning Department spokeswoman Joanna Linsangan said she hadn't received enough information about the situation at 1050 South Van Ness to comment for this story.
Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn said that everything around his agency "is usually complaint-driven." Staff tends to look specifically at whether there's an issue of non-compliance with the building code or a public safety issue.
Strawn said that he'd just spoken with staff "familiar with that part of the city," and "they weren't aware of there even being a homeless shelter in that area."
However, records on the agency's website show the department has had some history with the site in recent years. Data include information filed in November 2011 related to remodeling the second floor bathrooms "in conjunction with a homeless shelter." The work refers to the space intended to be LGBT-welcoming.
In May 2010, someone complained "the shelter is not wheelchair accessible," the records show. The case was eventually abated.
Waiting for space
As the permitting issues are sorted out, Dina Boyer, a 48-year-old transgender woman, has stayed in three homeless shelters since June and it has not been a welcoming experience. She said problems at the first two, Next Door and the Sanctuary, included clients making comments such as "I don't want to use the bathroom with men" and "What is he doing here?"
At Next Door, Boyer said, staff "would just look at me like I was stupid" when she tried to talk to them. She completed complaint forms at both shelters, but a Sanctuary staffer refused to take her complaint.
At Multi-Service Center South, staff at one point indicated they wanted to house her with men, but she was eventually allowed to stay with the women, Boyer said.
Kathy Treggiari, director of shelters for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, which runs Next Door and Sanctuary, said, "We try really, really hard to house people with dignity and respect, and to keep them safe." All staffers from both shelters go through mandatory transgender sensitivity training every year, she said. Staff members also have to go through training that includes LGBT issues once a year.
"To my knowledge, staff had not overheard other clients being inappropriate with [Boyer]," Treggiari said. "If they did overhear it, they're mandated to write it up."
She did not know how widespread the problem is.
"I have 534 beds out of 1,134 beds in the city ... so I don't have statistics on how often we hear" such complaints, but she said the agency mostly hears from transgender women, as well as other women.
Boyer's complained to the city's Shelter Monitoring Committee about MSC South but not directly to the shelter, she said. Calls to MSC South and St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Francisco, which oversees the shelter, weren't returned.
Boyer, who lost her job this year, had worked producing the country's first public access TV show about the trans community until it was defunded by the city.
Boyer said she's aware of the work to expand the Dolores Street-run shelter.
"It's taking too long," she said.
Campos said he's "very frustrated" and "very upset" with the issues around the site.
"I'm sorry that this has taken so long," he said. "I am certainly trying to do everything I can to remedy that."
However, Campos added, "It's not just about opening up the shelter, but making sure we make changes across the whole system so this doesn't happen in any shelter." He said he's already called for more training, and there would probably be another hearing later this year.