Six months after the devastating fire that left more than 65 displaced, one injured, and one dead in late January, former residents of the mixed use building on Mission and 22nd street are trying to settle into their new lives. Though the future is still nebulous, for most, one thing is certain: They want to come back to their third-floor units.
Araceli Tolama, who used to live in unit 317, is staying with her sister on and 24th street. She was offered a space at Parkmerced or Treasure Island, but thought of her two daughters, 10 and 13 years old, and decided the disruption to their lives after losing their homes would be untenable.
“My children haven’t really been affected, but I have been really affected. We lost everything.” Tolama said. She wanted to keep it that way, and decided to take the burden of their upended life upon herself.
“I just told them we would start all over again, and they needed to work on school and I would take care of the rest.”
The trouble is, Tolama says, that finding an apartment is difficult enough, but finding a landlord that will accept children is next to impossible. She’s found more units that accept pets than children.
Felipe Reyes also managed to stay in the Mission, though he said he found his current unit on Valencia street through an organization whose name he couldn’t remember. His main concern is keeping his job in customer service, since a relief check from funds raised by MEDA and writer Zachary Crockett only covered some basic relocation expenses.
“Whatever happens, will happen, I am working,” Reyes said. “Everyone is waiting to see what happens, we have to wait to see what will happen. We are waiting, and will wait.”
Many other residents have accepted relocation to Treasure Island or Parkmerced.
It took Yanira Hernández and her husband Elvis Rivera, who suffered minor injuries after carrying his badly burned neighbor out of the building and onto the fire escape, nearly two months to get assigned a place.
Though they’ve started a new household on Treasure Island, the couple is finding it difficult to actually move their lives there. Hernández still goes to the Mission to do laundry and buy groceries. Rivera has work every now and again as a painter but mostly stays on the island.
“On the island, we have no neighbors to talk to,” Hernández said. “Everyone keeps to themselves. We are just locked in there. I think it’s the same for everyone. So it’s very different from what the building was.”
On the other end of the city in Parkmerced, Eugenia Aldama and Humberto López feel just as isolated. In their sixties, they remain vivacious lovebirds and socialites who used to go out every weekend to dance in various clubs around the Mission. They never got to sleep until 1 or 2 a.m. because there was so much going on in the Mission. When prompted for some of their favorite haunts, they responded with a scoff. “Where did we not go, is the real question.”
Not so in Parkmerced. Though López drives, and the two have met with therapists in the Mission to deal with the trauma that still lingers from the fire, they spend most of their time at home. Aldama says she gets lost on her way back from running errands because all the houses look the same. Nobody greets them on the street, and they know no one.
“We’re so bored,” was her first description of their current condition.
Their new home is a two-story, two-bedroom rowhouse that they share with another fire victim. Their old unit was essentially a one-bedroom, but the couple treated it as a studio and sublet the bedroom. Their previous roommate is now on Treasure Island, and their new roommate is more of an acquaintance. They’re at a loss for what to do with all the square footage.
“We lose each other in the kitchen,” López joked.
Still, the apartment is a marked improvement from the first weeks after the fire, they said. They lived in the Salvation Army shelter on Valencia street for two weeks before being transferred to an SRO hotel. They stayed there for a month, during which time they each lost more than 20 pounds from the stress and from something in the water that upset their stomachs. Apart from the isolation, cooking for themselves and escaping the company of persistent drunks and drug users has improved their quality of life significantly.
Unfortunately, even with their adjusted rent, money troubles have arisen for López and Aldama. They fell behind on their utilities bill, accruing some $300 in bills and late fees they couldn’t afford to pay. According to Pamela Tebo of the Human Services Agency, the city helped the household pay off their bill. Aldama and López now have to find a way to pay future bills themselves.
The couple had also heard “nothing from nobody” about the current state of the building. They were approached to join a lawsuit some of the tenants are filing jointly, but declined. Though six months remain, they worry about running out of time on their temporary lease in the new space. Other tenants, too, remarked that since the transition period, they hadn’t heard from their landlord or from any city agencies originally involved in their relocation.
Some, however, have organized. Tenants in 15 of the units, and an equal number of business tenants, are filing two separate lawsuit against the landlord for failing to maintain the building in fire-safe condition.