Residents of the Iroquois, a Single Room Occupancy hotel, munch donuts as a silver-haired man with cobalt blue glasses explains why they should save water, food and medicine in their 10’ by 10’ rooms. He describes what San Francisco will be like in the aftermath of the next big earthquake, which he expects will be a “granddaddy.” To conclude, he cheerfully raffles off a Red Cross Survival Kit and the audience perks up. Somehow, he has managed to get them excited about preparing for a disaster.
Stephen is good at his job. He is the Disaster Preparedness Tenant Organizer for the Central City SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Collaborative, where his stipend comes from San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection. Each year he gives at least 30 of these presentations to private and non-profit SRO hotels around the city. He has lived at the Hartland Hotel since 2003, and in San Francisco’s SRO hotels for the past 25 years—first as someone who struggled to keep his life together and now as a vivacious leader in the Tenderloin.
When he arrived in San Francisco in 1987, Stephen was on a cross-country journey to regain custody of his daughter, who his ex-wife had kidnapped from his care. When he failed to get his daughter back, Stephen fell head first into a downward spiral of cocaine and alcohol that lasted for years.
On his first night homeless in San Francisco, Stephen waited in line at the Adrian hotel, clutching a county coupon good for a few nights’ stay. Suddenly the street emptied. Bewildered, Stephen turned around in time to see one man fatally stab another in the middle of the street, directly in front of him. “Needless to say,” he says, “I felt apprehensive my first night there.”
Fast forward many years and Stephen has a room at the Hartland Hotel, managed by Tenderloin Housing Clinic. When I asked him to describe the Hartland, he clarified that he “couldn’t tell you much about [it] for the first three years because I wasn’t in [common areas of] the Hartland—I was in my room and if not in my room I was [out] using drugs.” When I asked what drew him out of his addictions and isolation, he said, “My whole life I’ve always been a taker. Especially moving back to San Francisco I was on General Assistance. I had a B.A. in how to bullshit the system. I was excellent at it. [But] at some point I realized that I had to stop. Because of that I decided I have to give back, to balance the ledger.”
Eventually it was another Hartland resident who pushed him to act on that impulse.
Balancing the ledger
Today, Stephen has a habit—approaching a tic—of checking his watch. “I like to keep busy,” he told me. “The worst thing for me is sitting in front of the TV in my room.”
Stephen started participating more in his hotel because of Michelle, who was then the hotel’s Tenant Organizer for the CCSROC. He said, “[Michelle] confronted me about why I’m not involved in the Hartland more…. She kept at me until I said, ‘All right, what do you want me to do?’” She suggested that he help with the food pantry, a weekly food give-away.
Food pantry was the ‘gateway drug’” to organizing, he said. “Michelle kept asking me to do more and more. Then she was diagnosed with a terminal illness and she needed help with her duties as a Tenant Organizer. Toward the end of her life she wrote a letter saying that I would be perfect for her position. I didn’t know about that until after she passed. I brought the recommendation letter to the collaborative and interviewed for the position. I thought that I blew it…. Apparently they saw something that I didn’t and I got the position.”
Stephen’s avuncular personality and his persistence give him an edge in organizing with the sometimes challenging SRO hotel population. He tells me one obstacle to organizing is that “a lot of people hibernate,” which he says is understandable. SRO tenants are disproportionately elderly and living with physical and mental disabilities. However the overwhelming perception of SRO tenants in San Francisco, as seen in a recent series of SF Chronicle articles, is that they are listless, disengaged and drug-abusing. However Stephen is just one of many residents of SRO hotels in the Tenderloin, South of Market and Mission who are anything but.
Stephen does say that, ultimately, he would rather not be living in an SRO. However, at 64 he cannot imagine being able to go out, get a job, and make it in SF’s vicious housing market. Living in the Hartland, he has the opportunity to work for his tenants and the Tenderloin community. The best thing about this, he says, is that he can “get clarity and get to be able to like myself again. [That] enabled me to want to do the right thing.”
Stephen swears by the tenet that staying busy “breeds the opportunity to do something positive.” In addition to Disaster Preparedness, Stephen is a Food Justice Leader with the Healthy Store Coalition in the Tenderloin. This group works in conjunction with SF Supervisor Eric Mar’s Healthy Store Initiative. He says, “We try to convince the owners have stores [where] when a mother and her kids walk in, the first thing the child sees is fruits, juice and milk rather than candy, 7-up, coke, and potato chips.”
“That’s where I get a lot of my energy. If we can make those changes, I’d be on cloud nine. That keeps me driven.”
Stephen still finds time to volunteer with the Tenderloin’s Safe Passages program as a “corner captain”—a kind of escort—in order to “provid[e] a safer environment for children when they are going to and from school.” He was also recently elected to the North of Market and Tenderloin Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the SF Board of Supervisors.
Does 25 years in SROs mean the system is failing?
Finally, I asked Stephen to comment on the SF Chronicle’s critique of affordable housing based on its 95% retention rate and case management. He answered:
“There are two different mindsets about retention. From one perspective, it’s great that [people] are off the streets.” On the other hand, he said, the Care Not Cash housing program was “intended [to last] no more than six months to a year. That was very unrealistic of whoever … set it up. When you’re a drug addict and you’re trying to clean up or you have emotional problems and you’re trying to get it together, or you got a divorce and the ex took you for everything, or you just got out of prison for a non-violent crime, what are you going to do? It takes time. It’s unrealistic for people to think that you’re going to get things together in a relatively short period of time.”
He also disagreed with the SF Chronicle that people “fail to make it” because they lack support staff. “We have good case managers who care, and who’ve been there for a while.” They are what make the hotel run well. He concluded, “It’s still better for people to stay past the expected stay. You still have the chance to do something good, like I have.”