Elmer, an eight-month old who likes to show off his brand new teeth with a smile, has spent all but one month of his life living in an 8-by-10 square-foot room that he shares with his parents and two older siblings on the second floor of The Grand Southern Hotel.
The name is full of promise, but the hotel on Mission Street is neither grand nor graciously southern. Less than a block from the 16th Street BART station, it is one of the Mission District’s 50 single room occupancy hotels that have long been inhabited by the city’s down and out.
Increasingly, however, SRO guests include toddlers like Elmer and elementary school children like his brother and sister. As the recession overwhelms families, children are joining those who have long sought a bed here – the disabled without resources, prostitutes, hustlers, and the elderly with no other place to go.
“It’s an issue of the times I think. The way the economy is happening, the way that people are losing jobs, and this being the cheapest form of housing that people can access,” says Jorge Portillo, project coordinator at the Mission SRO Collaborative, a non-profit that works with SRO tenants.
The SROs are a place where no one asks for credit checks, security deposits, or references.
They were not places envisioned for children, city officials say.
“He wants to start walking now,” says Elmer’s cherub-faced mother, Delma, sitting on the lower bed of the family bunk beds as she watches her son navigate their dark, cluttered room. It is a hive of a room with barely any wall space because the family’s clothes and most valuable possessions need a shelf or wall hook.
While Elmer plays nearby, his 5-year-old sister Shirley is tucked way in the corner of the lower bunk, scribbling her name in a notebook, barely visible.
The children are allowed to hop and crawl from bed to floor and back again. But running clumsily in the hallway, building a pillow fortress, or taking a bath with a rubber duck are impossible these days.
“Children don’t meet their developmental milestones. Kids don’t get enough sleep. There is loud noise and there is no place for them to do their homework,” says Jennifer Freidenbach, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless in San Francisco.
No matter. “Because of the economy and because of availability of housing in San Francisco, every day there are families moving into hotels,” says Mattias Mormino of the SRO Families United Collaborative, a partnership of five organizations.
Compared to a year ago when about 20 families were counted in the Mission District, there are now at least 40, according to the Coalition for the Homeless and the Mission SRO Collaborative. In Chinatown, the number has jumped from 300 to 400 over the last three years, says Angela Chu from the Chinatown Community Development Center. Citywide, the numbers are up by almost 17 percent, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Space is only one – and often the least challenging – of the problems families face in SROs. There are also health code violations and neighbors who work as prostitutes or drug dealers.
Johnson Ojo, an environmental officer at the Department of Public Health, says that most violations he sees involve poor sanitation, bedbug infestations, and mold and mildew in the bathrooms.
Health and building code violations were nearly twice as common in the Mission as the city average in 2008, according to data from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Building Inspection.
The 80 square feet occupied by Elmer’s family is just barely legal. San Francisco allows up to two adults for 70 square feet of sleeping room. More than two, and an additional 50 square feet per person are required. Children under 6 are not taken into account.
But crowding is rarely discovered anyway. Without a permit for a room-to-room inspection, the Department of Building Inspection usually only checks common spaces on a routine visit.
This means crowding in rooms often goes unseen, says Rosemary Bosque, the Department of Building Inspection’s Chief Housing Inspector who added that they were aware that violations have gotten worse. It’s the economic downturn, she says – the same reason that many families have ended up at the SROs.
Elmer’s parents moved into the hotel seven months ago, after Elmer’s father was laid off when Scharffen Berger Chocolate, once a solid Mission District employer, closed its doors the week before Easter.
“With the loss of jobs and hours, people become desperate,” says Freidenbach.
“This is a temporary situation,” says Delma, who moved to the United States from the Yucatan. “We’ve been waiting my husband gets a new job.”
Right now he works in a restaurant, and on a recent afternoon, Elmer was busy thumping and bouncing on the boxes full of cosmetics – the creams and makeup that Delma hopes to sell.
In the meantime, Delma’s family pays $600 a month for a small bedroom furnished with one full-sized bunk bed, a small refrigerator, sink, dresser, organizational bins, and the children’s toys. Citywide, monthly rent in an SRO averages $600-$800.
Across the hall from Delma and Elmer, Arturo peers out of his doorway, past his daughter’s pink stroller, and toward the source of the noise.
A round-bellied man sits cross-legged at the other end of the short hallway, drinking vodka and orange juice out of bottles, and talking through an open doorway with someone across the threshold. In the distance comes a clunking sound of a stroller being heaved up the steep stairs.
“That man is perpetually drunk,” says Arturo, whose family returned to the Grand Southern, where they lived for three years before attempting a financially unsuccessful move back to the Yucatan. “He likes to take off all his clothes and roams the hotel. But management says they can’t get rid of him because he is mentally unstable.”
Of the 58 rooms at the Grand Southern, families fill at least five and 19 are set aside as tourist rooms, available by the night, according to the May 2009 Hotel Usage Report by the Department of Building Inspection.
Families arrive after getting word that the hotel allows children. “It’s a family going into that hotel, seeing that there are other families, and feeling comfortable enough to move into that hotel,” says Portillo from the Mission SRO Collaborative.
But the hotels open to families in the Mission District are not necessarily the most appealing SROs.
“Families with children only have access to the private SRO hotels, which are not monitored contractually by the City,” explains Maria X. Martinez, deputy director and privacy officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Even though city regulations apply to both private and nonprofit SROs, the city has a lot more contact and accountability built in its agreement with nonprofits.
Nonprofit SROs provide better-maintained buildings, caseworkers, security, and a sense of community, but they’re difficult to get into. Some have year-long wait lists and others simply don’t allow families.
Sherice Youngblood, who works in support services at Tenderloin Housing Clinic, says her organization doesn’t house families because the hotels are master leased through city-funded and general assistance programs. The city draws the line at housing families in publicly-funded SROs, since the hotels are seen as inadequate. Families are therefore forced to stay in the less favorable option, the private SRO hotels.
Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic said it was obvious why they refuse to rent to families. “Why would nonprofits house families in an unsuitable location?”
“The idea of putting families in hotels is dead,” Shaw continued. “That’s the same argument as ‘why don’t you work for $2 an hour?’”
But finding another option isn’t easy in a city with a 10-year, 20,000-family waitlist for public housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Even if the family finds an affordable private apartment, the money required to move in is difficult to set aside.
That was the case for another family at the Grand Southern. Delfina, Jose Fernando and their two children tried to move into a studio, but they lacked the money to pay the first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit. Delfina is out of work and Jose Fernando works at Café Tazo.
They’re going to try again next year and want to find someplace near their children’s schools. They are two of the 910 San Francisco Unified School District students living in SROs, 33 of which live in the Mission District.
In the meantime, they make do. Delfina has decorated the hallway outside of their room with colorful tinsel and Christmas tree ornaments. Inside, sparkling holiday lights decorate the cotton candy pink walls.
“Christmas is a very important holiday to them,” says 33-year-old Delfina, referring to her two children. Two chihuahuas scurry around the room, jumping at knees. One of them is Piolin, which is the Spanish name for the cartoon bird, Tweety.
The two children are home from school, and the whole family is nestled in bed watching “The Flintstones” in Spanish.
“You walk in and go up those stairs, and think, how can you live here?” says Mormino. “But when you get into the rooms you see they’re trying to keep it clean, trying to keep them organized. They try to give kids a basic rooting in reality.”
Aside from the holiday decoration, Delfina has made a serious effort to make the small room cozy for her family. There is the full-sized bunk bed, standard for families living in SROs, and a hammock, where her eldest, Christopher, sleeps. The family has installed white shelves to keep the room orderly. A blinking Virgin of Guadalupe light sits on one of them.
“It’s a very small for a family and we have to share,” says Delfina, who’s been renting the room for three years and pays $750 a month.
She arrived in the states three years ago with her youngest, Delfi, now 4, who has big moon eyes and bleached bangs like her mother. Initially the two stayed with friends, but after hearing about the Grand Southern, they moved in. Christopher, who just enrolled at the new San Francisco International High School, arrived from Acapulco two months ago.
“He misses the beach,” says his mother.
Neither Delfi nor Christopher were born in the US, so Delfina’s family is ineligible for general assistance.
When Delfi has to go to the bathroom, her mother helps her on to the Dora the Explorer training potty in the corner of the room. She then holds up a folded card table to give her daughter some privacy.
Delfi, who is only wearing light blue undies, quickly scuttles back into bed after finishing up. She hides herself under the American flag blanket, and nuzzles under her father to continue watching the cartoon.
“It’s too cold for her to go to the bathroom down the hall. But she goes in the same place where we cook,” says Delfina, referring to the double burner stovetop that sits precariously on the windowsill. Mission Street bustles two stories below.
“SROs are highly inappropriate for children because there is no cooking space and there are small shared bathrooms,” says Freidenbach. “The impact on children’s development improves significantly once they move out.”
But Delfina says they are managing. “It doesn’t matter what happens outside. Because when you’re in the privacy of your own room, you can feel safe, even with the fights outside.”