Delma spends most days with baby Elmer in the family's $600-a-month hotel room.

En Español

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.

Shirley practices writing as Delma looks on.

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.

Shirley plays on the floor.

“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 family has learned to navigate the tight space.

“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.”

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Brooke Minters was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she developed a taste for culture and cuisine at an early age. A taquería connoisseur and documentary maker, she's eaten her way through most of L.A., Granada, Havana, and New York. It's only fitting that she finds herself on the food beat in the Mission.

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  1. Having a third baby??? WTF? Why don’t these non-profits send their clients to
    Planned Parenthood for free family counseling, i.e., BIRTH CONTROL!!! Also, the two dogs, gimme a break — these people are spending what little money they have on things they can’t afford.

  2. Having delivered food from a charity to many a SROs in the mission, as a grown up, I didn’t want to hang out a minute longer than I had to in the SROs, much less live in one. Isn’t putting your children in these conditions considered abuse?

  3. I think its a tragedy that people with two kids and a parent making pennies has another, it’s also a tragedy that these parents keep having more kids, god doesn’t give as many kids as he wants you to provide for (or whatever the slogan is).

    In the long run the parents will never be able to pay off in taxes the amount they use up in services.

    With start out in life the kids will like be in jail in 15 years, as life time wards of the state.

  4. I think it is a growing tragedy that people who perform the lowest paid jobs are increasingly unable to afford to live in the areas where they work. SF is the most expensive city in the bay area but they are all pretty expensive. . . it seems that the only housing families such as the ones discussed in this SRO story can afford are going to be too small and, mostly, grim. What is the solution? Yes, the great recession is forcing families into SRO’s, families that used to be able to afford small, awful apartments. . where will it end? How long will this society tolerate such ongoing injustice? It seems like this society regresses. . .

  5. Camille, I am not sure if your angry comments about Christians and your seeming assumption that Christians are conservative apply to me but I assure you that I am not a Christian and absolutely not conservative. You are right in your suggestion that a comment pointing out that very poor people living in a tiny room with two kids were probably unwise to add a third child to the mix is not ‘solution-oriented’. I was unaware that comments to this blog were supposed to be limited to solutions. I think introducing the idea of birth control to a very poor family living in one room with three kids is SOLUTION oriented. . . you ask for solutions to how to deal with the children who are already here. . . one solution to improving the lives of the three children living in one room is to avoid having more kids . . and, yes, this society needs to come up with lots more solutions for such families. These children are all entitled to educations, health care, food, shelter and so are the parents. We live in an abundant world with enough for all and every human being born on planet earth has a right to basic needs . . . I don’t think there should be private ownership. . . no mansions on Nob Hill or palatial estates anywhere . . there is plenty on this planet to sustain all the humans born here but we need to come up with a resource distribution system that, at a minimum provides for decent, basic needs for all, irregardless of birth control or religion. My initial comment may have set you off Camille into making the reactive comments you made because I mentioned that the hispanics might be Catholic . . The Catholic church prohibits all forms of birth control, which causes quite a lot of economic challenges for poor families who honor the prohibition . . . that actually is a solution-oriented thought. . . the Catholic church is also against providing condoms to poor women in AFrica who are forced to have sex with their unfaithful husbands who spread AIDS at alarming rates . . we can focus on the emotional, bleeding heart tragedy of five people living in one tiny room in the mission . .. or we can look at systemic solutions to the problem, which is what I was doing with my comment. My goodness, Camille, you are so narrowminded and bigoted. You seem to think someone who cares about poverty is a Christian conservative if they say anything except what you think they should say. How old are you? Grow up.

  6. These families living in SRO’s have nothing to do with the economy. They are also not complaining. They are dealing with the realities of immigration, having children with limited resources, and moving to one of the most expensive places in America. Those that are seeking to shed “light” here are those that make a living off of stories like this. All those city funded “non-profits”. You want to do the city a service? Move out all the mentally unstable leeches and put them in asylums so productive immigrants can move in and not have to deal with them. So we all don’t have to deal with them. Cute kids but they are here to try and achieve a better life. The word being achieve. As for the 20,000 families seeking public housing how is that number possible. And who are they? And why are they seeking public housing? Should either of these families receive public housing? Does someone who comes here and then has a baby automatically become eligible? If so time to stop it. Public housing should be for those who are from HERE who fall on hard times. Period. It should not be used as an alternative for immigrant housing. Nor should public housing become permanent housing. Although I know that Randy and his friends would love that. And lets face it SRO master leases were a huge fraud. You can thank Alioto and Shaw and Gavin for that.

  7. Time we convert commercial space to residential(or work/live). I know many of the residents of SROs have the talent to install residential fixtures in vacant commercial spaces. I don’t see any reason to open a store, factory or office with all the outsourcing going on.

  8. Having babies when one can’t afford to is not a smart idea, granted. BUT, now that these children are here, what to do? If we are the morally just and (perhaps) Christian society that we claim to be, what do we do to help these poor families living in SROs? They live in our city, they are a part of our society. I’m especially looking at you conservatives with Christian values. Claiming that they should never have been born is not a solution.

  9. I have much empathy for the poor. I am poor. I live on SSI and can only afford decent housing because I won the lottery and have a housing voucher. Without the voucher, I’d be living in an SRO. Every month, at the end of the month, I run out of money for food. Thank goodness my one child is raised, college educated and taking care of herself. Thank goodness I didn’t have to raise her in an SRO . . .

    but I have to reiterate what others have suggested. . . if you are so destitute that you are living in an SRO with two kids, it seems imprudent to have a third child. That eight month old baby could have been prevented using birth control or, even , abstinence. Seems like living in one room with two kids ought to slow down the sex lives of the parents. Are these poor Hispanics Catholics? Why aren’t they using birth control? Babies are not inevitable. They can be avoided.

  10. thank you for a nuanced article, honestly portraying the struggles families are facing right now. keep up the coverage

  11. if you can’t afford a decent place to raise a family stop breeding. this isn’t mexico. and don’t expect tax payers to pay for your reckless, irresponsible breeding.

  12. wow. some of these comments are straight up rude!

    i think the point of this article is to shed light on how recessions/unemployment have a trickle down effect to families and thus children.

    i mean, it’s a really complicated issue. hard to answer and i’m sure even harder to solve. glad you were able to cover the intricacies.

    thank you ladies for shining light on a really serious dilemma.

    i think your genuine care is sincere and i really appreciate it. 😀

  13. as much as i agree that it’s important to provide safe, suitable place to live for low income families, I also believe that if you can’t afford to provide your children a safe, suitable place to live, you shouldn’t have them – much less 3 of them.