It’s the first of the month, and Tree is sailing around in silk slips and high heels. She’s new to the 248-room Mission Hotel, the city’s biggest single room occupancy (SRO) hotel. It’s government check day, and spirits are high.
“What do you smoke?” residents ask the former hypnotherapist and mother of two adult children, half greeting, half sizing her up. Tree’s round blue eyes, blond pixie haircut, and taste for scarves, floppy hats and the occasional rabbit fur make her look younger than her 49 years. It’s an allure she learned to trade and sell during three months of homelessness before her arrival at the Mission Hotel, she says.
Though the Mission Hotel is a place where, according to Tree, “very little is normal,” an estimated 90 percent of residents have been there for more than a year, says general manager Sam Meki. Many were homeless, and the $493 flat rate rooms and access to supportive services make the hotel, run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a cut above sleeping on the street.
Peace, privacy and stability can be hard to come by in some of the city’s 530 residential hotels, particularly for women, who make up 38 percent of the citywide SRO population of more than 18,000, according to a 2009 Human Services Agency study. For many, a sense of permanence remains elusive, as they cycle through an institutional circuit of “shelters, SROs, the street, jail, and sometimes residential treatment…often repeating this pattern throughout the year,” says Kelly Knight, a medical anthropologist at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).
For those women who manage to find a quieter residential hotel, there are still issues to manage: shared bathrooms, problem neighbors and unresponsive managers. Still, some eventually make the hotels a home that they’re unlikely to leave.
There’s Kym Meadows at the Graywood Hotel, a pretty 42-year-old with bright green eyes and iridescent eyeshadow. The recent influx of men with violent criminal records in her building rattles her sense of safety and revives memories of past abuse. But she’s grateful to have a second chance at stability after unexpectedly ending up on the streets in 2004.
And there’s 43-year-old Bobbi Hagen, Meadow’s neighbor, who has been in and out of hotels since she was 17. Her time at home consists of tending to her boyfriend’s health as he battles full-blown AIDS, and trying to keep her own HIV at bay to live another year, she says. The Graywood is the most stability she’s ever experienced, she says.
Like many women living in SROs, Hagen, Meadows and Tree are recovering from troubled pasts and battle drug addictions and mental illness. More than half the women in and out of SROs have used an illegal drug in the past year, 15 percent have engaged in sex work in the past year, and 25 percent have had psychiatric hospitalizations in their lifetime, according to a 2003 study by medical researchers at UCSF.
“It’s a hard challenge for people to stabilize in hotels when they’re dealing with so many things coming at them,” says Jennifer Plummer, a women’s therapist at Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, which serves primarily local homeless and residents of the 50 SRO hotels in the Mission District. “People are very prone to being victimized in similar ways as they have in the past.”
For Meadows, the men who harass her in the Graywood are a painful reminder of all that has come before—three rapes, menacing attention from men during a stint of homelessness, and an alleged stalker who recently threatened that he was going to “get her.”
In her hotel, one man regularly jiggles the doorknob and tries to push his way into the bathroom with her. Another wallpapered the bathroom she uses with especially hardcore pornography, a cruel joke that reminded her of a traumatic childhood incident.
Meadows has lived in the Graywood in the outer Mission since 2005. The problems only began, Meadows says, about eight months ago when the hotel owner began to rent city-subsidized rooms to No Violence Alliance (NOVA), a program that provides transitional housing for ex-felons, most of whom have committed at least one violent offense.
“Now I carry pepper spray in my robe when I go to the bathroom,” says Meadows. Though she hasn’t been assaulted at the Graywood, she has reason to be wary: More than 30 percent of marginally housed and homeless women in San Francisco reported physical or sexual assault in the past year, the 2003 study from UCSF found. But women may be particularly inclined to stay in hotels, even chaotic ones, as they are 18 percent less likely to be sexually assaulted and 11 percent less likely to be physically assaulted than women who have lived on the street for less than a year.
Living with a partner offers some sense of security. Meadow’s husband keeps a red aluminum baseball bat near their bed, and he’s offered to accompany her to the bathroom with it.
Hagen, her downstairs neighbor, doesn’t like the NOVA program either. It’s brought in a lot of “wackadoos,” she says. But she has found a semblance of community on her floor, where she’s on a first name basis with most people, and is close with Meadows.
Even if she’s regularly disgusted by the pee all over the bathroom and occasionally spooked by a neighbor, Hagen’s managed to eke out a quiet existence for herself and her partner, Matthew. On good days, they enjoy cooking together in the newly installed communal kitchen on their floor. But the fear of losing the government benefits that keep her housed, and her life-saving prescriptions filled, makes her permanently on edge.
“It’s hard to deal with the stress outside my door when it’s a battlefield in here,” says Hagen, whose white-blond hair and piercing blue, kohl-rimmed eyes contrast the somber gray of the room. She cradles a tiny, skittish dog in a green sweater against her puffy white ski coat.
For years, she dealt speed in the Tenderloin, ran an escort service and was herself a working girl who shot dope.
This all stopped when Hagen was diagnosed with HIV in 2005. She also suffers from pancreatitis and says that “if the one doesn’t kill me the other will.” Her health is stable for now, but the prognosis for Matthew is poor.
“Our own well-being is like a daily job, because you can get so depressed,” she says.
Today she’s not sure how she’s going to keep Matthew hydrated. He’s been vomiting from the flu for the last three days, and the only fluids they have on hand are Kool-Aid and coffee.
Hagen plans to get a $16 tree from Kohl’s to go on top of a red Christmas drum, but she’s worried she can’t afford a gift for her 11-year-old daughter, who’s visiting next week from her grandma’s house.
It’ll be three or four days before any money comes in—she’s arranged for her government checks to go directly to the Lutheran Social Services first to pay all her bills before she gets any of the money.
“I want to make sure that my home is stable,” she says. “But that’s why I’m always broke.”
The hope she has for her life at the Graywood is “just to get a grasp on my health, work on my relationship, [find] some contentment in my life.”
Meadows also finds that despite her discomfort with neighbors in the hallways, the Graywood offers a modicum of peace and privacy as she continues on her recovery from heroin.
A small whiteboard hangs to the side of their sink, listing their daily methadone dosage schedule in blue marker.
“I would be dead if it weren’t for methadone, and certainly not living indoors,” Meadows says, fidgeting with her heart-shaped necklace.
A former hairdresser who wears her bright, rust-colored hair pulled into a loose side ponytail, Meadows lives with two cats and the husband she met when both slept on the streets of the Castro. They pay $836.36 for a spacious corner room with a rounded bay window, which she affords with her social security and disability insurance for the bipolar disorder she’s in treatment for. After bills, Meadows has $56 left over.
Compared with what she experienced living on the streets and in other hotels around the city, the Graywood seems “like the Hilton,” she says.
But compared with the Graywood , the Mission Hotel where Tree lives is a raucous dormitory. With thin walls, narrow halls, and windows that overlook a central shaft littered with trash and hypodermic needles known as “crack alley,” privacy is hard to maintain.
People are constantly knocking on Tree’s door.
“Who?” she shouts.
It could be one of many boyfriends, someone asking for a cigarette or offering some kind of proposition. How about some speed for a 40-inch television, someone asks. If the mood is right and the offer is a rock and a pretty smile, the visitor will be ushered in, Tree admits.
But this time it’s Les, one of many on-and-off boyfriends who lives next door.
“Les, baby, I’m hungry,” says Tree in a girly voice. Her only breakfast was cigarettes and orange Gatorade sipped from a goblet.
She excuses herself to follow Les and returns minutes later with a banana, tower of Ritz crackers, rectangle of cheese and can of root beer.
In the seven months she’s been there, Tree has learned how to use the many types of currency that circulate—food, drugs, sex, companionship, cigarettes, TVs, laptops, food stamps—that get whatever she doesn’t have.
“People are trading sex for shelter, sex for diapers, sex for food, sex for whatever they don’t have,” says Carola Shepard, Business and Development Manager at San Francisco SafeHouse.
The supportive services available to Mission Hotel residents help her to get by. She receives $200 a month in food stamps and her subsidized rent is just $318 a month.
But when that money runs out or is stolen from her, Tree says, “I still have to live in this hotel. I still have to eat everyday.”
Because the Mission Hotel is a non-profit, Tree is less likely to face some of the problems that keep other women on the move, which include 21-day forced evictions and accrued debt, according to Knight. But she’s not immune to other factors Knight says force women into transience, such as violence and changes in financial circumstances and partnerships.
“Women here are a commodity,” says Tree. Their role in the underground economy puts them in competition with one another—and if Tree’s experience is representative, exposes them to greater violence.
“We hear women talk so much about not trusting other women and that deep sense of isolation and loneliness,” says Laura Sheckler, outreach program coordinator for the Women’s Community Clinic.
The woman across the hall from Tree has repeatedly told her she’ll leave the hotel “in a body bag,” and one of Tree’s boyfriends punched her in the eye—both because of jealousy issues, Tree says.
“But we also see women who have each other’s backs all the time,” Sheckler adds. Most women Sheckler sees during outreach in Mission District SROs have been living in hotels, though not necessarily in the same room, for over a year. What they have in common, she says, is “almost all of them have experienced such severe amounts of trauma throughout their lifetime.”