Gaylord Dixon, a distinguished man with freckles and a gentle voice, stooped to pick up trash in the hallway of his Single Resident Occupancy hotel, the Royan. A few steps later, he ducked into a hallway and switched off the light. “It’s a lot of people who say bad things [about SRO hotels]”, he told me. He added, frustrated, “People look at you like this is a drug place.” But he clearly takes care of his.

Many only see SRO hotels as harboring drug use, dealing, and the like. Dixon tells me people should try visiting the Royan. Throughout our interview, he repeated the same theme: “You can move into a place, and it’s just a place. This is a home.”

What are SRO hotels for?

In the slowly gentrifying Mission District, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s (THC) supportive housing, including the Royan, provides low-cost housing for formerly homeless individuals. The neighborhood is undoubtedly different than when Dixon was homeless there, although his standard spot was the corner of Post and Mason. It was his favorite place to smoke crack and drink.

In response to an SF Chronicle series about THC’s Mission Hotel, just a little ways from the Royan, I wrote several profiles (here and here) of SRO residents who are leaders in the community. The tenants I work with consistently objected to the following analysis. (They explained it well, so I will not repeat their points in their profiles.) Reporter Kevin Fagan wrote:

San Francisco has created enough supportive housing in the past decade to pull about 9,000 homeless people into residential complexes staffed with counselors to help them get over the dysfunctions that put on the streets. But most residents and tourists who walk those streets notice little difference.

That's because there isn't enough counseling to go around for those who need it intensively ….

It hardly makes sense to blame case management for what Fagan says, anecdotally, is unremitted homelessness in San Francisco. Dixon’s story teases out another important piece of the conundrum of a puzzle of San Francisco’s strategy to address homelessness: the home.

As Fagan points out, THC hotels have a 95% retention rate, meaning that only 5% either go back to the streets or move to independent housing. It is a truism that virtually no one can afford to live in San Francisco today, yet Fagan blames case managers for this. One questions his logic—and the premise of his criticism.

Dixon: “I have never considered [THC hotels to be] transitional housing—[some tenants] have been here 25 years! They consider it their home. They only leave now if they need a higher level of care. And where are you going to go where you can [afford to] live—and eat—here in San Francisco?” This begs the question: if independent housing is virtually unattainable, what is the goal of non-profit housing services?

Building a tight-knit community is difficult, particularly in SRO hotels where residents struggle with a variety of substance, mental health, and financial challenges. Still, the Royan and many others do it with palpable joy. This, I’d argue, is the goal.

Dixon: a San Francisco story

Dixon was born in the Southwest but moved to San Francisco when he was seven because of chronic asthma. He attended a plethora of public schools here—Poly Tech, Benjamin Franklin, Mission High School—mostly because he was, as he put it, “rebelish”. At 16, he says, he got turned on to pot and eventually fell into other addictions. Years later, he had a “half pint of jaeger and cracker to start my day. I’d eat at 4 PM go to St. Anthony and shower, or wash my face at Jack and the Box. I could sleep on a friend’s couch, but only if I had crack [to give him].”

At this point, Iona Lewis, Royan Hotel case manager walked past and popped her head in the door. “Tell her about Steven, Dixon!” He smiled; clearly this story about their resident manager was a favorite.

“One time, I didn’t have crack. Remember El Niño season? It was raining like crazy. Steven [current desk clerk at the Royan Hotel] let me sleep for three nights in the lounge of the Rose Hotel on 6th Street—Steven was a desk clerk there…. All I had left was a pipe.

[His help] gave me initiative to get myself together … my friend told me about MSC [Multi-Service Center] South, the shelter at 5th and Bryant, hooked me up for seven days.—I got breakfast, dinner … then I came here. I haven’t had a drink in 14, 15 years, no crack.”

Although Dixon successfully recovered on his own, it was not always easy. “Once, Leona [former property manager] sent me to Catholic Charity at 6th and Market. The first thing that came to my mind was to buy crack. There’s nothing but crack and alcohol there. I kept seeing … Steven [in my mind]—I thought about what THC has done for me. Why blow it?”

Today, Lewis says that Dixon is “very committed to his [weekly food] pantry duties and knows every store owner from here to 16th and Mission.” He tells me he aspires to be a tenant organizer with THC.

Dixon also volunteers for as part of Lewis’ “team of redecorators.” Lewis scours Craigslist for free/low cost items to have on-hand for residents who need room furnishings and they help Lewis to provide room make-overs. Recently, Dixon told me that they repainted and decorated the room of a resident who has been at the Royan 26 years with virtually nothing in her room. Dixon described many of the residents as not wanting anything fancy. “I got my living room/dining room/kitchen/bedroom all in one room,” he said with a chortle.

Other staff are similarly caring. Carmen, a desk clerk who has been at the Royan for 10 years, told me, “[When] there’s something they need, if I can’t say, ‘Can I help you? What do you need?’”, she said, gesturing to the THC mission statement about respect and making tenants feel at home, “then I’m not doing my job.” Dixon chimed in that the maintenance worker “knows every single person and tries to help everyone.”

But Lewis, Dixon told me, is the best case manager they have ever had.

A celebration of life

Seniors dominate at the Royan. Of the 69 residents, none are under 50. According to Lewis, five or seven have lived there 20 or more years and 15 have lived there over 15 years. According to Dixon, “The people are really cool…. [T]hey feed each other and most try to clean.” And, at coffee hour, Lewis said, “One female resident comes downstairs and does a little ‘jiggle dance’”.

With so many seniors, deaths are all-too-frequent; she told me that two to three residents pass away every nine months or so. However, Lewis takes it as a point of pride that no one has been deceased in their rooms for over 24 hours. Shocking as this may sound, the reason for this is that desk clerks, other residents, and management know tenants’ habits and keep an eye out for them. When they do pass away, they hold celebrations of life for the whole building. One of the desk clerks, she told me, even buys flowers to put in front of the deceased person’s door. His mantra: “’Better flowers than crime scene tape.’” Lewis said that residents never fail to amaze her. “People come down and bring music, bring food” to celebrations. At a recent one, “A very demur client was singing louder than everyone else.”

I asked whether tenants talk about their own deaths and she said, “Tenants tell me what they want to happen [when they die]. They don’t want to go to the hospital. They say, ‘I’m home.’” She smiled. “[I get to] facilitate some dignity on the way out.”

Despite the proximity to death, banter in the lobby between tenants, friendly hollers flying around, and laughter pervade the building. Lewis tells me, “We have a lovely group.”

What’s wrong with transitional housing? Renter’s syndrome

Dixon has nothing but praise for Care Not Cash, the funding scheme for housing homeless individuals and former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s brain child, from which THC receives funding. While Dixon was staying at the shelter, he told me, “Mayor Gavin Newsom came to the 5th and Bryant shelter. He never turned his back on us….” He smirked. “Not like Willie Brown.” He added, “Care not Cash is one of the best things going because [it’s hard to] screw up your rent!”

Lewis agreed. “Tenants are really diligent about paying rent. Sometimes the tenants do see it as transitional housing—these are the only ones who ever have delinquent rent.”

The classic characteristic of renters, according to behavioral economics, is that since they have less long-term investment in their homes, they take poorer care of them. The same is true of hotels, and the converse is true as well. At the Royan, says Lewis, “Tenants feed each other and most try to clean.”

Given the structural barriers to independent housing, she agrees that it is far better to make people feel that an SRO is their home. “They’ve went through enough transitions before they got to the Royan.”

Dixon returned to his first statements to me, his sensitivity to what people think of SRO hotels. “Invite the media,” he said. “If they come in here, they’ll see how people survive….” Residents of SRO hotels are survivors, not to be confused with “victims”.

Dixon said, “What makes me strong is the people here …. I’m very happy to be a resident.”