This 'dumping' of mail in one spot, as opposed to being sorted and delivered directly to individual mailboxes, has caused an outcry among housing advocates and those who work on behalf of the poor.
San Francisco Postmaster Noemi Luna made the decision five years ago to comply with "current fiscal shortages." Within five months of Luna's local policy change, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of tenant advocacy organizations. The Central City SRO Collaborative, the San Francisco Tenants Union, and the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco all were represented by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic as co-plaintiffs in the litigation that Herrera's office submitted to the court. Since that policy decision reports of instances in which SRO residents in San Francisco failed to receive critical benefits checks; saw benefits terminated for failure to answer inquiries they never received; missed medical appointments and risked having private medical information disclosed to others have increased. Most of the time mail is dropped off at an unsecured location. This allows mail to be exposed to potential theft, loss or damage.
Last week on Nov. 5, Herrera's office alerted the press to say that A 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel heard arguments that morning on whether the U.S. Postal Service is violating federal constitutional guarantees and its own regulations because of Luna's local policy change that arbitrarily deprives San Francisco residents of single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, of secure and reliable mail delivery.
"There is no legal basis for the U.S. Postal Service to discriminate against SRO residents as a cost-cutting measure," said Herrera. "The factual and legal disputes in this case are both too serious and too numerous to justify the trial court's decision to grant of summary judgment, he said in an official statement. "I'm hopeful, said Herrera that the appellate court will reverse the District Court ruling, so a case with serious implications for tens of thousands of San Franciscans can be properly resolved at trial."
At issue before the three-judge panel is whether an Oct. 25, 2011 trial court ruling for summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Postal Service should be reversed. Such a ruling would allow a trial to proceed on multiple disputes involving the local policy set by postmaster Luna. It was not said at the time of press conference that Tuesday how long the panel will take before making their decision and when a trial date would be set, exactly.
Yet as the deputy press secretary for Herrera's office explained, "since this is a three-judge panel in an appellate court, what happened was that the lawyers made their oral arguments," said Gabriel Zitrin. He serves as deputy press secretary for the City Attorney. Zitrin went on to say that the lawyers each spoke and in combination with the briefs they filed in the case, that is all the panel will need to issue their decision."
This reporter then asked Herrera's deputy press secretary Zitrin if the local policy goes against the Federal government's oath. Isn't there an oath regrading the importance of mail delivery? And, isn't it part of the USPS to ensure all mail is delivered to those places?
"It certainly is," said Zitrin. "They're claiming they can do that by just delivering all the mail in bulk to the lobby of a building. That position by the local USPS ignores the facts on the ground about how SRO residents get their mail and the problems associated with it," he said. Another disturbing fact about such a policy change is that there is very little that can be done to bring mail thieves and other culprits to justice.
"An individual SRO resident is going to have a pretty tough time bringing the perpetrators to justice without the focus of law enforcement," Zitrin added. "And, getting the authorities to devote their limited resources to such a threat is a challenging task," said Zitrin. "There's no way we (attorneys and others) can tell SRO residents that it's their responsibility to do whatever it takes to bring the bureaucracy to bear just so that they can receive their own mail," he said. "The responsibility falls on the Postal Service, under their own rules."
Then the question was asked would this local policy change have impact nationally? In other words, would this decision by a local Postmaster General here in San Francisco, open the door for an impact on mail delivery across the country?
Zitrin thought about it and responded saying, "the Postal Service’s refusal to deliver mail at SROs is a local issue that does not necessary affect mail delivery in other parts of the country." "The decision we (here at the City Attorney's Office) challenge in the lawsuit was implemented by the San Francisco Postmaster General, who in theory can set policies for how mail will be delivered in the area that she oversees," he said. "Yet, providing of course that those policies also conform to the administrative laws of the Postal Service and all other laws." This policy, noted Zitrin, doesn't do that at all."
Over the past five years,"some residents, he said, have even reported seeing their mail blown away by the wind because the Postal Service just dropped it unattended in the entryway of a building." This policy change on the part of the local Postmaster General makes the poor and low income people of those SRO hotels even more vulnerable.
There is no clear explanation as to how much money is actually saved by this policy. "But the Postal Service, said Zitrin, refuses to do it the right way, and they're not even giving a straight answer as to why. They talk vaguely about potential cost savings," he said.
And, when SRO residents have problems getting mail who can they turn to? Especially so if law enforcement can do very little. Zitrin had this to say..."talk to your elected officials, and get them to take action on your behalf, he said. "And, get the mail delivered all the way to you," he said. "That's why the City Attorney is pursuing this case, because San Franciscans are being treated unfairly, it's having real and negative effects on their lives, and they need our help."
"On a smaller scale, noted Zitrin, individual SROs already have their own unique difficulties with their mail deliveries that can result in residents not receiving their mail." "It can be terrible for SRO residents," he said. "Management isn't always able to solve mail problems. And, if the management is actually the problem, said Zitrin, residents can feel like they have nowhere to turn."
Even though this is a complex situation, Zitrin emphasized that City Attorney Herrera is not giving in or giving up.
"I am very grateful to the Central City SRO Collaborative, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the San Francisco Tenants Union, and the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco for their leadership on the issue," said Herrera. "And, for partnering with us in this important litigation," he said.
More details will be released as they unfold. For the latest information on this case and others visit the City Attorney's Office of San Francisco web site.