.Novato Homeless Union Chapter Protests Homeward Bound’s Policies

A group of residents from the New Beginnings Center, a homeless shelter in Novato, staged a march and protest last week to demand improved conditions and fair treatment at their temporary home.

The shelter’s top brass, bearing freshly baked cookies and rolls, greeted the group as they ended their march in front of the New Beginnings Center, which is operated by Homeward Bound of Marin, a nonprofit organization.

There were some tense moments as the residents, who are members of New Beginnings Chapter #5, the newest chapter of the Marin Homeless Union, aired their grievances to Homeward Bound’s co-CEOs, Mary Kay Sweeney and Paul Fordham, and the nonprofit’s board of directors’ president, Bob Pruett.

“Ventilation has been broken,” Anita, a resident and union officer, said. “Mold has been present for six months and longer. Yes, staff knows, the director knows, and nothing has been done.”  

Other residents also spoke out about issues, including shelter staff threatening them with eviction. One man asked that the New Beginnings staff come out of their offices to allow the group to address them directly.

Despite the request, the staff of the 80-bed shelter never joined the group. Fordham said the Homeward Bound leadership was there to listen on their behalf.

“Some of your concerns, we haven’t heard about before,” Fordham said.

The final speaker was Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union. A formidable force backs up the New Beginnings Chapter #5, according to Prince. Thousands of people belong to 25 local homeless unions in California, which are part of the National Union of the Homeless.

The union members are asking for the establishment of a collective bargaining committee, Prince said. The goal is to have residents, along with their union representatives, sit down with management to discuss their needs and legal rights.  

“This is the way to go forward,” Prince said. “We don’t want to fight you… Meet us at the table.”

Homeward Bound’s board president Pruett agreed to a meeting with the residents and their union representatives, noting the need to address the problems.

The demonstrators left the executives with a list of 20 demands. Some demands would be easy to implement, such as keeping a binder of the facility’s policies and procedures in the lobby and making grievance forms readily available.

Other needs may be more challenging to satisfy. The residents, who are required to make monthly monetary “contributions” to the New Beginnings Center, demand the payments be recognized as rent. Under California law, rental payments are made by tenants, giving them more rights than night-by-night shelter residents. For instance, a landlord cannot evict tenants for making a safety or health complaint.

Homeward Bound, which has been in existence for 48 years, is no stranger to tenant rights. In addition to temporary shelters, the organization also operates long-term supportive housing for formerly homeless adults and families. During the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Homeward Bound served 870 people.

In an interview the day after the protest, Fordham pushed back on the demand to recognize the residents as tenants. Fordham emphasized that the New Beginnings Center is a shelter, not permanent housing, and although the residents’ monthly contributions help balance the budget, the payments are not rent and there is no lease agreement. Some people are not paying their contributions, and since the pandemic began, they’re not asked to leave.  

Prince maintains the monthly payments are indeed rent. Homeward Bound documents obtained by the Pacific Sun seem to give validity to that position.

“All participants are required to make a $270 contribution by the 5th of each month. If collecting  General Relief, contribution is $210 a month,” according to a document titled “NBC Basic Program Guidelines,” which the residents must sign.

 A New Beginnings resident received a letter, written by a shelter case manager on March 1, 2022, about the past due amount he owes. The document indicates that “contribution,” “rent” and “fees” are interchangeable terms.

“This is to inform you that the client owes $910 being contributions for months of November, December, January, February, and March. Usually, residents are expected to pay by the 5th of the month just like they are expected to pay their rent for rental apartments. I hope this helps you to get his fees paid,” the letter states. 

Rent confers tenant rights, and Prince is like a dog with a bone on this point. The letter is an admission by the New Beginnings Center that the resident’s contributions are the legal equivalent of rent, Prince said in an interview.

“You don’t have arrears on a voluntary contribution,” Prince said. “They pay by the 5th of the month, just like they’re expected to pay rent. Paying rent is mandatory.”

Other significant issues exist for residents at the shelter, according to Prince. They are required to maintain and clean the New Beginnings Center, yet they aren’t paid. It remains to be seen whether the residents are going to file a wage and labor claim to test the constitutionality of the shelter’s policy.

Fordham dismisses Prince’s claim that the residents are performing work and should be paid. Still, he wobbles with his explanation, vacillating between whether the tasks are voluntary or required.

“Chore assignments are part of all of Homeward Bound’s congregant living facilities,” Fordham said. “Residents are asked to help to take care of the facility. It’s not a requirement to do it. If somebody signs up and they can’t do it due to a disability, they’re not asked to leave.”

The “NBC Basic Program Guidelines” make no mention of asking residents to help or excusing those with disabilities.

“All participants are responsible for maintaining the facility, assigned a chore and expected to participate in double scrub,” according to the printed guidelines.

None of the documents obtained by the Pacific Sun state that monthly monetary contributions and facility maintenance by residents are voluntary. How, then, are residents informed they can bow out?

Residents are not aware that refusing to pay and declining to sign up for maintenance duties was an option, three long-time residents said in interviews.

The New Beginnings Center is currently working to clarify the contribution policy, because it hasn’t been enforced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Fordham said. More funding may soon be available, which would allow the shelter to do away with monthly contributions entirely.  

Unfortunately, Fordham is now unsure whether a meeting with the residents and union representatives will take place. When reminded that the board president committed to it, Fordham noted there are deeper implications to some of the residents’ demands.

“We will follow up with them,” Fordham said. “We’re discussing this with our board and legal representation. We’re getting advice on what we’re being asked to do and what our requirements are.”

The union, too, seems to be backpedaling. Prince said they don’t want to fight, but sent a letter to Fordham and Sweeney on Monday suggesting he is reconsidering.

“We anticipate, going forward, that litigation may be initiated against Homeward Bound/New Beginnings Center. Most immediately, we have evidence that undue pressure, threats by inference and reprisals may have already been made against NBC residents who have participated in the formation of the New Beginnings Chapter #5,” Prince’s letter stated.

Nikki Silverstein
Got a Hero or a Zero? Please send submissions to [email protected] Toss roses, hurl stones with more Heroes and Zeroes at pacificsun.com.
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