Thursday, October 12, 2006

This Is Wrong

So in a previous post, I mentioned I went to a gala. That gala was the fundraiser for the San Francisco Bar Association's programs, which include the VLSP, diversity programs designed to promote women and minorities in the legal field, and programs such as the school to college program and the San Franciso Law Academy.

But while I was there, I was talking with a Social Worker friend of mine that I have worked with on a couple of cases. Currently she is working on campaign to get supportive housing in San Francisco to be.... well supportive. Now, the Mayor, Gavin Newsome, ran a few years ago on changing how homelessness would be handled. He has, to an extent.

Where before money was basically going to shelters and direct payments to the homeless people, now the movement is to get everyone housed. Good idea. Problem is, where do you find people who are willing to accept below market rates and provide services in a city that has some of the highest property values in the U.S.

Obviously, the city cannot just go out and buy property and run it as a city operation. For one thing, even if they simply took out long leases for the buildings, it would be extremely expensive. Tack on to that, supportive housing means not just providing living space, but usually also an array of social services in the form of social workers and programs designed to make the people more self-sufficient.

Now some of people who contract out for this work take the job seriously and understand the sector of the population that they are going to be dealing with. Simply put, the people that end up in supportive housing are poor, disabled (often mentally) and are not used to living like people who are able to read online blogs (or even normal people). For example, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, has evovled over time from simply being a tenant activist organization to helping provide supportive housing in San Francisco. They seem to understand that the people who are their tenants are transitioning from being out on the street to establishing something more permanent. They also, in my experience, seem to understand that simply putting a person in rental unit is not going to change them or their behavior over night.

However, there are others, who I will not name, who do not appear to view their business in the same way. They take the view that it is a business first and only. The profits need to be maximinzed, within the contract which they have with the city. People transitioning from being on the street or in temporary shelters are expected to act like model citizens from day 1, regardless of their condition. And they enforce these expectations in the easiest possible way: use of the unlawful detainer.

Now, what is an unlawful detainer? Its what lay people call being evicted. The landlord serves a notice to quit (for either an alleged nuisance or non-payment of rent). Once the notice expires, the landlord then instructs his attorney to file a complaint for unlawful detainer. Since the tenants have little in the way of resources, they often do not get a lawyer, unless they are able to get in touch with organizations like the Tenants' Union, the Eviction Defense Collaborative, or the VLSP.

From representing some of these people, I have noticed a pattern. A landlord who has an actual problem with the tenant will be able to list out a series of acts which constitute a nuisance. When the landlord simply does not like the tenant, they find one incident and allege it as a "nuisance". For example, in one case where I helped represent a tenant, a severely disabled man (organic brain damage which caused him to yell at people) was being evicted for nuisance because he got into a loud arguement with another tenant. While in some states single nuisance acts is not grounds for eviction, it can be in California if it serious enough. In this case, it was a 60 year old client in an argument with a 30-something tenant who was literally head and shoulders taller than him. Fortunately, he was able to get representation through HAP. We forced a dismissal when the other side realized that a) we were going to go to trial and b) that they had been ignoring this man's disability in dealing with him.

If they are not able to get an attorney, they typically face a trial in which they are ill-prepared and do not fully understand how to conduct. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot learn how to conduct a jury trial by watching a few episodes of Law & Order, Boston Legal/The Practice, and Judge Judy.

The upshot is, most of these people end up getting evicted. As a result, an unlawful detainer goes on their record. It affects not only their credit, but can also affect their benefits. So now you have taken a person off the streets, housed them for a few months and then evicted them and sent them back on the streets until they can once again qualify for housing. Some people resort to desparate measures in order to get a roof over their head, like Timothy Bowers of Ohio.

So where does that leave us?

Well, back to my social worker friend. She has decided to take the case to the city supervisors and the Mayor. In particular, she is working to get action taken to make supportive housing work. However, a perusal of the Mayor's disclosures show that he has been receiving money from at least one of the landlords who is, in my opinion, less than supportive in providing suppportive housing (I have not looked up all the names and permutations of other landlords participating in the supportive housing scheme).

Despite having promises from the Mayor to sit down with her and review the program. For the past few weeks, after sending a letter confirming this, he has been ducking her. So my friend has decided she needs to take more drastic action if she can not get the system to work.

She's preparing for a hunger strike. Right now, she is pulling permits (yes, in San Francisco, you need a permit to conduct a hunger strike in front of San Francisco City Hall), arranging for a port a potty, and a tent. Rather than sit down and deal with a problem that is supposed to be a high priority of the City's government, they have forced this advocate into a position where she is preparing to risk her health (she is not a spring chicken, nor an impulsive once) in order to get an appointment that the Mayor already agreed to give her but has since reneged.

I understand the landlord's need to make a profit. However, they should know what they are getting into, namely providing services to damaged people.

Anyways, the basic idea is that the way we are treating the homeless once we start transitioning them back into society is broke and needs to be fixed. There needs to be better oversight and procedures in place to deal with people. There needs to be better taining of the people who work there to ensure that they are able to deal with some of the more difficult people around.

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