Lorena Hernandez sat on a bare kitchen floor, crying, as her children played soccer in the furniture-less living room of a city-owned apartment on Treasure Island. Just a month ago, on May 6, Hernandez, a single mother of five, was cooking pancakes for her family at their home of 16 years on Valencia Street. Then she heard her sons and daughter shout the words that changed their lives: “Fire! Fire!”
Her family made it out safely, but the four-alarm fire scorched two buildings, leaving at least 37 people homeless. The cause of the fire is still undetermined after an investigation, according to a fire department representative.
Hernandez, 31, and her family were so distraught after escaping the fire that they began walking to nowhere in particular, wearing nothing but pajamas, until a police officer stopped them.
“I didn’t know what to do, where to go,” she said.
That feeling hasn’t changed. A month after the fire destroyed their apartment, the family is on the verge of homelessness and overwhelmed by house-hunting at a time when the city is experiencing an acute housing shortage.
While other tenants are staying with friends and family, Hernandez, a cafeteria worker, doesn’t have that option – her brother and sister live in overcrowded housing with no extra room.
“You realize just how alone you are,” she said. “I thought that I could count on certain people, but now I realize that it’s not that way.”
The family can move back to its two-bedroom apartment once it is rehabilitated, per San Francisco law, but that process could take years.
In the meantime, the city’s Human Services Agency has placed them in public housing until September. After that, Hernandez and her children are on their own.
Life on Treasure Island Not Easy
The extended family of 11 — Hernandez, her five children, her brother, his wife and their two children — was placed in two different homes on Treasure Island.
After moving into a three-bedroom unit a couple of weeks ago, Hernandez was told she had been given the wrong home and was asked to move to a different unit. It was the fifth move in four weeks; before coming to Treasure Island, the family had stayed in three different hotels.
Three days into their stay, an older neighbor allegedly jumped her 13-year-old son Josue and his cousin.
“He never got in any fights before,” she said. “Now I overhear them tell each other, ‘You need to be part of a group to be safe.’”
It worries Lorena that Josue refused to tell her about the incident because he didn’t want to be labeled a snitch.
“In the city you can yell and people around you can hear you,” said Hernandez’ mother, Gloria Castillo. “Not here.”
That’s not Hernandez’ only worry — her two eldest sons have started to blame her for their situation.
“We are going to go to a shelter,” one often tells her.
Traumatized by the Fire
The day of the fire, Hernandez’ extended family had all made it out to the street with the exception of her eight-year-old son, who was still inside, sleeping. Hernandez climbed back to the third floor of her building, 204-208 Valencia Street, as the flames approached her apartment. She found her son and carried him downstairs.
Whenever he hears sirens now, he gets scared, she said. So does she.
A few days ago, when Hernandez picked up her children from her sister’s home in Richmond, one of them told her about a fire on a hill.
“My heart started beating faster and I started to sweat,” she said. “It’s like I was reliving the moment.”
The Good Samaritan Program
For tenants like Hernandez, hope comes in the form of San Francisco’s Good Samaritan program, which allows landlords to offer discounted rentals to victims of disasters like fires and earthquakes for up to one year without committing to a long-term rental.
But in this case, the program hasn’t helped because few landlords have come forward.
Benjamin Amyes of the Human Services Agency said he had found two landlords willing to rent a room each, but the spaces were too small. He is still looking for landlords, he said, but the program provides no incentive for them to participate.
Hernandez holds on to this possibility because so far her house search has been fruitless.
When asked what would happen if she can’t find a place in San Francisco, her eyes began to water.
“I try not to think about that because it makes me sad,” she said.