The Social Security Administration building on 1098 Valencia St. provides a view of the city's economic issues.

This is our third in a series examining who’s in line at Valencia Street’s Social Security Administration building. You can read previous entries in the series here and here.

Standing in line a government office is an unusual way to celebrate most birthdays after age 16, but its a common way to spend the morning of a certain one.

“I’ve just turned 66,” many a senior will report on the sidewalk of Valencia Street.

Welcoming the dawn of their retirement age, new beneficiaries are often the Social Security Administration’s happiest customers, even if they arrived at the building well before its 9 a.m. opening.

Others in line, like 74-year-old Charles Spears, are more pensive, realizing benefits alone will only go so far toward keeping themselves housed in the Bay Area.

There are more than 8,000 people over age 62 living in the Mission’s primary zip code, 94110, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. That’s about 11 percent of the Mission’s population.

Of 6,066 Mission-area residents aged 65 or older for whom poverty status is known, nearly 16 percent had an income below the federal poverty level in 2013. That’s about one percent higher than for seniors in the rest of the city. In 2011, only 11.4 percent of 6,401 Mission-area residents over age 65 were below the poverty level.

Like a growing number of seniors across the nation, Spears is still employed. With his savings depleted, and his wife too ill to work yet deemed ineligible to collect disability benefits, he decided to begin collecting his social security while continuing to work as a truck driver. “It’s going to allow me to maintain what I have and keep on surviving,” he said.

While Spears supports two children, ages 8 and 17, other seniors, like 78-year-old Maximina Lozano, rely on their adult children to help them stay local.

Lozano frequents the Mission Neighborhood Centers, where staff said they often work with local seniors struggling to find affordable housing in the city where they’ve worked and raised their families. The Centers offer a number of senior social services programs, including ones to help them search for housing and medical assistance. Lozano and other Mission seniors go there at eat lunch together, watch TV and sing in a choir.

When she walks home to the SRO she lives in with her adult son for $880 a month, Lozano sets her walker aside, clings to a railing and slowly pulls herself up twenty-some steps to her room. When asked how she cooks, she slid a two burner stovetop from beside her bed and laid it across a bucket. The makeshift cooking area occupied most of the open floor space.

Looking at families with a household member receiving social security benefits, 7.5 percent were in poverty in the Mission in 2013. Some 200 fewer families with a member receiving benefits were counted than in 2011, when 2,429 families with seniors had poverty rate of 5.2 percent.

Seniors frequently say they do not know what resources they will have in their retirement, not until they’ve paid the social security administration a visit. While homeownership provides security for many seniors in California, lower-income seniors renting in San Francisco may find their resources and benefits fall short.

Because of this shortfall, Mercedes Ramirez, 72, describes herself as depressed. She lives like Lozano, with her son, but she needs to move, she said. Despite her sewing and janitorial work, “it’s really hard to come up with the rent.”

Another, younger senior looking to apply for social security said he was fending off depression and anxiety because he could not find work anymore. “You want me for paint, plumbing, you name it, electricity,” he rattled off. He could do it, he said.

But “this year, I’m in trouble,” he said. “All the people I used to work with are retiring or dying.” The 64-year-old handyman has lived in the Mission District for 30 years, he said, after leaving El Salvador when the civil war claimed his only brother’s life. Since then, he’s lived well in the Mission. Until now, he said. “No one wants to hire me anymore.”

“New people don’t believe me,” he said, “but my mind is working!” He’s been getting by at his home on Cesar Chavez Street using his wife’s disability benefits.

People wait in line in the morning for the Social Security Administration on Valencia at 22nd streets.
Waiting in line in the morning for the Social Security Administration on Valencia at 22nd streets.

Joana Mattero, an activity and outreach specialist with the Mission Neighborhood Centers for the past eight years, described sad situations where the elderly often combine the money or benefits they have to arrive at enough to share a tiny hotel room like Maximina Lozano’s on Mission Street. Some sleep on the floor. Because of displacement within the past two years, she’s seeing the problem grow.

“They sleep two or three people in a little room,” said Mattero, who is currently assisting more than 30 seniors. “They live in those studios, and it’s not a safe place for them.”

Mattero vividly remembers the tears of one woman of retirement age, who regretted leaving her job and subsequently moved to Daly City to live with her son. “She said, ‘I didn’t know it would be this bad for me to retire at this age,’” Mattero recalled. The woman had just discovered her small income was a little too high for her to qualify for health care assistance, and she could no longer afford her medication.

Staff at Mission Neighborhood Centers said 15 to 20 people come by each week, asking if they know of any low cost housing for seniors. They may have only $400 to $500 a month in social security to work with. “We go on the Internet to see if there are any places,” said Mattero. “Everything is now a lottery. We see if they get lucky.”

Juana Macias, 74, has been applying for low-income housing in the city for 10 years without success. She said her life is very calm, and her only problem is trying to make $800 a month in benefits cover both her $600 rent and her other needs — with a rent increase on its way.

There are about 16 affordable or low-income housing opportunities listed in San Francisco as of April with open waiting lists, but only one mentions serving seniors and many have estimated wait periods of at least six months, if not three years. The Bethany Center senior housing, on Capp Street near 21st, reports it can only open its waiting list every five or six years.

Mattero said none of the seniors she’s worked with recently has won any of the city’s periodic housing lotteries. Several of her regular clients, in their 70s, are being evicted because of remodeling. “We put in (housing) applications for them like crazy,” she said.

“Before, they used to get a list of places they could just call, and one of them could get a place,” said Mattero. But now, the competition for housing has gotten even fiercer. “Maybe this couple has a baby, and they get priority, or this person is homeless,” she said.

Because of a dearth of low-income housing opportunities for the elderly, some older San Franciscans have no choice but to move out of the city to survive — or leave the country, if they are not U.S. citizens thus have no benefits, Mattero said.

The federal poverty guideline, $11,670 for one person in 2014, is a far cry from the $62,046 income the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated necessary to rent a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco last year. The cost of housing in the city is about 198 percent higher than the national average, according to data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. In 2013, the mean social security income in 94110 was $14,032.

Although Mattero believes the housing situation for the local seniors will get even worse, she still tries to give her clients hope while they look for a way to stay in the city, she said. “We fill out the application and we wait. There’s nothing more we can do.”

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J.J. Barrow began reporting for Mission Local in 2010. She once rode the 49 Van Ness-Mission for six hours straight while the rest of the city tuned in to the World Series — until revelry ended the route. She misses hiding in Guerrero's quiet Cafe Petra (now defunct) to write.

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