“It looks like peace, but it’s more dangerous at night,” says Ahmed Mohammed. Mohammed works the night shift at the front desk of El Capitan Hotel and Hostel, a $45-a-night single-room occupancy hotel in the Mission District.
“The only stories that happen here are about murders, girls and drugs,” he says from behind a glass enclosure like a bank teller’s that runs from his desk up to the ceiling.
An SRO can be a permanent residence or a room for the night. It’s a refuge, a haven and, at times, a prison. It can be a place to perpetuate bad habits or a safe house in which to extinguish them. It isn’t luxurious, nor is it crude. At its most simple, an SRO is a shelter from the storm. We checked in to one to report on the living experience that is a daily reality for San Franciscans who are poor, vulnerable and on the edge of homelessness.
There are over 500 SROs in San Francisco, and they are home to more than 30,000 low-income residents, according to the Central City SRO Collaborative, a local housing advocacy group. SROs make up 5 percent of all San Francisco residences and comprise the largest supply of low-cost rental housing in the city. An SRO is defined as a single 8-by-10-foot room with shared hallway bathrooms, but beyond that they range dramatically in quality.
Even in this community, gentrification is an ongoing issue. While there are incentives for landlords to rent to people who are homeless, in low income brackets or suffering from mental illness and who are supported by government or charitable agencies, there are often greater incentives to evict such tenants and renovate the space to rent at a higher price. Especially in neighborhoods like the Mission.
At First Glance
The first thing we notice as we walk up the carpeted stairs to the front desk is that it is incredibly bright.
The fluorescent bulbs don’t flicker, but shine down with an unflattering fury onto the occupants who roam the stairs and hallways and occasionally stop by the front desk with its glass partition and signs apologizing for the inability to lend money.
El Capitan is a medium-sized hotel. It opened around 45 years ago and has 80 rooms. Of those, about 30 percent are occupied by permanent residents, some of whom have lived here for as long as six years. None of the rooms have kitchens and there is a sign in the lobby that flatly states, “No hot plates.”
Despite the manager’s stark description, many of El Capitan’s residents and guests are regular folks trying to live out their lives. We overheard three men in their 20s talking about going to yoga class as they climbed the stairs from Mission Street. At any given time El Capitan houses around 10 culinary students from a nearby community college. It’s a cheap place to stay in one of America’s most expensive rental markets.
Our Living Quarters
Our room shocks us. Not only is it nice, with a neatly made twin bed, varnished wood floors and the usual tepid hotel paintings, there is also a huge flat-screen TV. Are we really in an SRO? Not until we stroll around the hotel do we start to see that living conditions vary in other sections.
We’re on the second floor. On the first floor are a series of rooms with bunk beds made up for students. In another wing of the first floor are the permanent residents. As we walk around, the occasional cracked doorway reveals a room with plain white walls, a buzzing TV and a floor piled with clothes and belongings.
Our room has a sink, a coffee maker and an alarm clock that went off without reason at 5 a.m. These are not the accommodations that the long-term residents — many of them older people — are assigned.
As we walk down the hallway, Mohammed suddenly appears around the corner, arms on hips.
“If you want to walk around, let me give you a tour,” he says.
He quickly escorts us out of the resident wing, saying that we shouldn’t bother the permanent residents, some of whom suffer from mental issues and need quiet.
The permanent residents don’t have any of the luxuries of our room, but they get a slight discount for paying by the month. There is no formal screening process for residents other than making sure they have a matching credit card and ID. The front desk keeps a record of the IDs of those who have used drugs in the hotel, to ensure that they don’t come back. As Mohammed said, some residents deal with mental illness.
Here and there are signs requesting “Please Do Not Disturb,” and some residents like to keep their doors open a crack. No cooking appliances or microwaves are allowed in the rooms, but sometimes the old-style furnace can make the room uncomfortably warm.
Mohammed, the desk clerk, is in his 30s. He wears jeans and a denim work vest. Three years ago his family sent him to America from India to go to school. He’s attending the International Technological University in San Jose, where he’s getting an MBA in information technology. At night he works at El Capitan.
As Mohammed stands talking to us in the lobby, a short, unkempt man with stringy gray hair and an oversized brown jacket peers around a potted plant. He stares at us, vigorously rubs his eyes, and darts back around the corner.
“Sometimes they are scary,” Mohammed says, “but I have to be strong.”
Asked about any strange happenings in the three months he’s worked here, he replies that recently one of the residents hung himself in a room.
“He was shorting,” Mohammed says, referring to the room payments. “I didn’t see him for three days.”
Mohammed believes the man had stopped taking his medication or, as he puts it, “He messed his head.” Another employee found the man when the smell from his room became too strong.
Another character, he says, occasionally stands in the hallway for hours.
“He says the radiation is coming out of him. He’s scared with the moods, the darkness,” Mohammed says, his nascent English verging on the poetic as he tries to describe the man’s mental illness.
According to Mohammed, families place some long-term residents here because they are addicted to drugs or alcohol and an SRO is an inexpensive housing option. The residents are occasionally visited by social workers, he says, but more often they are just sent medications.
Often the bills are paid with Western Union checks by people in other states.
“The checks are always different,” he says, noting that they come from individuals rather than government social services.
We offer Mohammed a business card that says “Mission Local reporter.” After looking at it for a long minute, he says, “You go to Berkeley?”
“Yes,” we answer, explaining that we are graduate students in the journalism program. Backpedaling slightly, we explain that this is for an article about hotels in the Mission.
“Ohhhh,” says Mohammed, still staring at the card. “How is Berkeley?”
It’s good, it’s difficult and it takes up most of our lives, we reply. We moved here recently, too, and are getting to know the place.
Suddenly this feels ridiculous. This assignment — embedding in an SRO — was to get out of our comfort zone, to see the urban wilderness. But standing in this hotel now seems like the worst kind of tourism.
Unlike Mohammed, who traveled to the Bay Area from South Asia to study technology, we came here from the Pacific Northwest to go to a great school and become better journalists — a job with its own financial uncertainties in this era of media upheaval.
We talk about how terrifying it is to live off government loans. We talk about his career path and how smart it sounds.
“Ah,” he says, “but you are doing your passion. Being a journalist or a photographer, that is a passion.”
“What is your passion?” we ask.
“I wanted to play football,” he says. “But India doesn’t even have a professional team.”
Staying a night and morning in an SRO — even in the company of a colleague — leaves one with a sense of uneasy loneliness.
At 9 a.m. the next day, a rooster crows, but not the full-blown cry of a sunny morning. Even craning your neck out the window, it’s impossible to locate the bird. It’s a sign that it’s time to leave.
Handing the keys over to the new front desk manager, we feel gloom mixed with relief. Not because the accommodations were tragic — in fact, they were downright comfortable, except for the stiff sheets. Unlike many occupants of El Capitan, we at least could check out and return to seeing other people — people who love us, people who care.