A committee assembled to analyze how the region can address disparities fueling Black homelessness last year confronted a stark reality: Homeless shelters disproportionately banned Black San Diegans from accessing their services – and yet there was sparse data on who was being banned or why.
As that revelation came to light, city and San Diego Housing Commission officials found that Father Joe’s Villages, the city’s foremost shelter provider, had a lengthy list of clients suspended from accessing its services and was disproportionately removing Black clients.
As of last November, Father Joe’s had 134 people on its suspension list. Four other city providers tracked by the Housing Commission banned a combined 11 people total. Just under 39 percent of the 134 onetime clients on Father Joe’s suspension list were Black, where Black people represented about 28 percent of those in city shelters. Black San Diegans make up 26 percent of the city’s overall homeless population per the region’s latest homeless census.
A few months after this revelation, the Housing Commission demanded changes to Father Joe’s suspension list and other issues at its three city-funded shelters.
“FJV is expected to identify and implement practices to ensure suspensions are not disproportionate to the demographics of those served in the shelter,” Housing Commission Senior Vice President Debra Fischle-Faulk wrote in a February notice. “The rate of suspension for the racial and ethnic groups served at the shelters will not be disproportionate to the overall size of the groups served. The overall rate of suspensions is expected to be no higher than the average rate of suspensions by other shelter operators.”
The city’s housing agency hired an outside consultant to review policies and practices at Father Joe’s and work with all city shelter providers on universal shelter and suspension policies.
The Housing Commission recently whittled down Father Joe’s suspension list to 32 people. It did so following the consultant’s recommendation that Father Joe’s remove clients who hadn’t accessed the homeless service system for at least a year. Racial disparities remain following the change, which Father Joe’s has resisted. Thirty-eight percent of clients on the list are Black.
Father Joe’s and the Housing Commission have been sparring in a series of formal responses since the housing agency’s February demands.
Deacon Jim Vargas, Father Joe’s CEO, said his agency is committed to improvements but emphasized the complexity of the situation. He also noted that Father Joe’s list is more expansive because the nonprofit provides services beyond shelter including meal service and a day center, and thus includes some homeless residents who haven’t stayed in Father Joe’s shelters.
“The work that we do is complicated work,” Vargas said. “It’s very sensitive work and it is very client focused.”
Vargas said Father Joe’s wants to ensure all homeless residents who use its services are safe and that his agency can remove people who pose a threat.
Homeless shelters in San Diego and across the nation have long had suspension policies – sometimes dubbed “do not return” lists – to keep people out who have violated shelter rules or threatened the health or safety of others in the program. Shelter providers in San Diego have historically maintained these lists without oversight from government entities who fund and contract with them.
That changed in San Diego when the Housing Commission began overseeing intakes during the Convention Center shelter operation in 2020. Suddenly, city housing officials knew more about suspensions. The commission continued overseeing intakes after homeless residents moved out of the Convention Center in spring 2021. Housing agency officials say that’s when they began trying to track and evaluate providers’ suspension lists.
The situation also spurred the commission to try to create universal shelter rules, a process that has until recently moved slowly as the agency met with providers and pursued contracts with the outside consultant.
Then the Regional Task Force on Homelessness’ Ad-Hoc Committee on Addressing Black Homelessness – and its fall 2022 report – put the spotlight back on suspension lists.
When city and commission officials finally got the data, they immediately identified Father Joe’s as an outlier.
City housing officials learned that Father Joe’s had a lengthy list that spanned three categories.
- Suspensions: Shelter residents are immediately ordered to leave for reasons include vandalism, violence or threats of violence, possession of a weapon, drugs or pornography. Management then decides whether to allow the person to return or to give them a a permanent or 30-to-60-day suspension.
- Temporary debarments: These bans could span 24 hours or weeks for people not staying in Father Joe’s shelters who behave inappropriately while accessing the nonprofit’s other services including its health center, meal services or the day center.
- Permanent debarments: Father Joe’s said these apply to the most serious offenses and can stem from long-ago incidents. For example, the agency said its longest-standing debarment was for a sex offender who in 1998 tried to kidnap a child at the nonprofit’s St. Vincent de Paul campus.
Data that Father Joe’s shared with Voice and the Housing Commission showed debarments that had been on the books for years made up the majority of the agency’s suspension list.
Around the time the Housing Commission confirmed disparities with Father Joe’s suspension list, the housing agency hired Atlanta-based Equity in Action, which also assisted the Task Force committee, to work with the commission and Father Joe’s on its suspension policies.
The Housing Commission last month also finalized another contract with Equity in Action to review policies at all city shelters, gather feedback from Black shelter residents and develop universal practices and policies for all city shelters. The housing agency, which held a series of meetings with shelter providers to gather feedback and hash out draft guidelines, expects universal policies to go into effect early next year.
Tension between Father Joe’s and the Housing Commission intensified this summer after the housing agency shared Equity in Action’s recommendations for the nonprofit’s suspension list.
It urged Father Joe’s to immediately remove clients from its suspension list that hadn’t interacted with homeless services in the county for at least a year and to try to contact others it decides should remain on the list at least three times to allow an appeal. The consultant called for a comprehensive assessment of each person’s suspension status to “determine if the person currently places a safety and security risk to others.”
Equity in Action and the Housing Commission also urged Father Joe’s to restrict the scope of its permanent bans.
“Loss of access to all FJV’s programs, services and housing could have serious consequences to individuals. Even the justice system only reserves lifetime sentences to the most severe cases where someone is determined to be a lifetime threat to society,” stated the June 22 directive. “If permanent debarment is initiated, FJV will report these cases with the Housing Commission so there is opportunity for discussion and awareness of the decision.”
In a July 11 response to the Housing Commission, Father Joe’s general counsel Ann Wieczorek wrote that the nonprofit “vehemently disagrees with SDHC’s insinuation of ‘lifetime sentencing’” and argued that Father Joe’s existing system allows for “multiple layers of appeal.”
Wieczorek also argued that time passing shouldn’t be “the sole deciding factor on whether to remove an individual from the list or not” and that they should also review the reason for and nature of the violation, time since the violation and the person’s current situation.
Wieczorek criticized the Housing Commission’s demand that suspension rates shouldn’t be disproportionate to the groups served.
“This expected performance, while well intentioned, has the opposite effect in that it requires FJV to make decisions based on race and ethnicity if FJV has reached its limit of suspension by classification instead of our current process of solely basing suspension and debarment decisions on the individual’s behavior,” Wieczorek wrote.
Fischle-Faulk and Housing Commission Vice President Casey Snell responded in a July 19 letter noting that the city’s housing agency has invested significant time trying to work with Father Joe’s and hired an outside consultant to try to address disparities.
“FJV’s lack of accountability and unwillingness to move forward in a cooperative and collaborative manner, as reflected in the July 11, 2023, responses, is disappointing,” Fischle-Faulk and Snell wrote.
Father Joe’s Villages told Voice that seven people recently banned from its shelters had physically assaulted someone, brandished weapons, damaged an apartment, stabbed someone and threatened to shoot clients and staff.
But Rose Harris, a former manager who worked at Father Joe’s shelters, said at least some of the suspensions Father Joe’s meted out during her time there might have been avoided if Father Joe’s staff had done more to calm clients rather than ratchet up conflicts.
“People were kicked out every day and some of them were valid,” Harris said. “I would say 50-50 were somewhat valid and 50 percent of them could have been prevented with good de-escalation techniques.”
Two homeless service experts told Voice that shelter providers like Father Joe’s should do whatever they can to avoid limiting access to services
Ann Oliva, who wrote the city’s 2019 homelessness plan and now leads the Washington D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, acknowledged operating shelters is difficult but said providers must work to keep them accessible.
“Banning somebody from shelter puts lives at risk and it has to be done carefully and it has to be done in only the most warranted of circumstances,” Oliva said.
She urged Father Joe’s and the Housing Commission to closely assess the demographics of the nonprofit’s staffing, turnover and training.
Father Joe’s reports that 43 percent of staff who directly interact with clients are Latino and 31 percent are Black. Last fiscal year, the Housing Commission reported that 35 percent of people served by city shelters identified as Latino and 27 percent as Black.
Vargas and leaders of other homeless service organizations in the city have also been vocal about staffing challenges in recent history.
Still, the nonprofit said its staff are trained in de-escalation and other tactics that can be used to guide clients without being punitive and are given opportunities to practice and refresh their skills.
Iain De Jong, a Canadian consultant who has championed low-barrier shelter principles in communities across the United States, said shelters should strive for policies that promote rehabilitation versus punitive approaches, and focus on how staff can ensure the shelter environment feels safe and secure for all residents.
For example, De Jong suggested practices such as 10-minute timeouts or walks after tense confrontations and simple guides explaining community expectations for a shelter – such avoiding behaviors that might make others uncomfortable – rather than the far more detailed handbook Father Joe’s provides residents.
“A lot of stuff in the Father Joe’s list are things I’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of times and it speaks to me as a real opportunity, and the opportunity to recalibrate and ask if it makes sense,” De Jong said.
In a statement, Father Joe’s said it tries to find ways for clients to remain by providing verbal and written reminders of its rules and referrals to other resources, and often overturns suspensions after a client has cooled down.
“If a client is not a partner in that process and continues to present behaviors that impact the health and safety of others, we may have to determine the person cannot stay with us at the time,” the nonprofit wrote. “Any client who is asked to leave is offered a multi-level appeal process and, even if they don’t appeal, they are welcome to return after a period of time out of the program.”
Two former Father Joe’s shelter clients who said they were temporarily banned told Voice they decided not to return. Father Joe’s declined to confirm whether either ended up on its suspension list for privacy reasons, but their experiences shed light on confusion and frustration that can surround forced departures.
Freddie Dangerfield, 52, said he had to leave Father Joe’s Golden Hall shelter late last year after missing bed check three nights in a row.
Dangerfield decided against using Father Joe’s appeal process – or returning after the end of what he understood to be a 30-day suspension.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” said Dangerfield who recently slept on a sidewalk near Father Joe’s St. Vincent de Paul campus. “I didn’t want to be back in those people’s faces.”
While Father Joe’s wouldn’t comment on Dangerfield, the nonprofit said shelter clients aren’t placed on the suspension list for missing bed checks.
Robert Fausto, 62, spent months at Father Joe’s Villages Paul Mirabile Center shelter before he said he was kicked out last November. He said he accused a shelter employee of stealing a charging cord after other shelter residents told him they saw her take it. Fausto, who uses a wheelchair, acknowledged he got angry.
“I was so heated when they kicked me out for basically wanting my personal stuff back,” said Fausto, who said he heard from others who had similar experiences.
Fausto, who is now staying in a hotel program, swore off Father Joe’s.
“I would rather stay on the streets for the rest of my life than go back to Father Joe’s,” Fausto said.
Father Joe’s declined to comment on Fausto’s experience but wrote in a statement that it welcomes feedback and noted its formal appeal process. It also said it doesn’t ask clients who report thefts to leave a program.
As Father Joe’s and the Housing Commission continued to debate shelter suspension policies,
City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera in June requested that city and housing agency officials provide an update to the City Council on shelter suspension policies by Sept. 30.
“The system as a whole is just grossly unfair to Black San Diegans and Father Joe’s needs to figure out what it is specifically within their processes and policies that is exacerbating the issue, but I think focusing solely on one service provider makes it too easy for all of us to not do the work that we need to do to address the broader systemic disparities,” Elo-Rivera said.