After Fire, Victims Await Next Steps

Robert Montoya and Killer at the shelter at the Salvation Army. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Fortified by a night of fitful sleep and some hearty meals, 24 tenants displaced by the fire at Mission and 29th streets are staying at a Salvation Army on Valencia Street and remain anxious to find out where they will go next. Many have no idea.

“Obviously housing is a big concern,” said Kathleen Maclay, a Red Cross worker at the shelter.

Though donations of supplies and clothing are pouring in, and those sheltered have been told they won’t be kicked out without somewhere to go, the biggest and most essential need of long-term housing is also the hardest to fulfill. 

“We just have to wait and see what happens, what develops. What else can we do?” said Robert Montoya, a resident at the single-room occupancy Graywood Hotel, where residents say the fire started.

“That fire was crazy. I couldn’t believe how fast it spread,” said Montoya, sitting in the dining room of the Salvation Army shelter while his chihuahua, Killer — whom he rescued from the fire, scooping him up after discovering thick smoke in the building — dozed in his lap.

The fire department has yet to identify the source of the fire, but conducted its investigations on Sunday. Initial reports indicated the fire may have originated somewhere at the hotel. Though many complaints about conditions in the hotel have been filed with the Department of Building Inspections over the years, only one code violation, for an unpermitted heating system, was unresolved at the time of the fire according to records. Single-room occupancy hotels often have multiple complaints, and most of those recently filed against the Graywood were for lack of cleanliness.

Now, Montoya is unsure where he’ll end up, or who will help him get there, though his mother-in-law has offered him a place to stay.

Montoya is also one of several who had to leave various items behind — medication, IDs, tax documents, and essentials like clothes. After years of laying tile and brick on his knees, Montoya has significant pains that require pain medication.

“Most seem to have had to leave their home really really fast,” explained Maclay, the Red Cross worker. “They were unable to grab much of anything.”

Some managed to take their phones or wallets. One woman escaped with nothing but the nightgown she was wearing.

Maclay said many of the families initially displaced had met with aid workers to get services and food, but were able to find shelter with friends or family on their own. Those at the shelter on Sunday needed housing – and more information.

“I need to get back in my hotel room and see how waterlogged it is,” said David A. Gibson, another resident of the Graywood. The fire department has not yet determined when or if tenants will be able to return to any of the buildings, saying they would have more information on Monday morning.

Donations arrive at the shelter and are sorted by family. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Donations arrive at the shelter and are sorted by family. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Though several buildings are entirely destroyed, the facade of the Graywood still stands. Gibson, for one, believes his unit suffered only water damage and hoped he would be able to rescue some clothes and tax documents.

“I’m a little bit impatient,” he admitted. “I haven’t heard anything.”

Nancy Lopez, who is 81 years old and possibly lost a cat in the fire, said she is also unsure where she will stay. She’s hoping for senior housing, she said, but may make do with another hotel room.

“I hope I can get a senior at least, one room. That would be good enough for me and my cat,” she said. “I hope maybe by tomorrow I can get some answers.”

In one case, a tenant also lost the contents of his bank account, which he had just withdrawn and temporarily stored in his apartment.

Irving Garcia, who lived at 3328 Mission St. above the bar Coronitas, said he had just withdrawn money to pay a ransom for his family, who was briefly held hostage in Mexico by a drug cartel.

He said his family is safe — he makes payments through a proxy, and now must repay the proxy — but that all his money went up in smoke.

“I went to my job and said, you see that on TV? That’s my house,” Garcia said. He’s not sure who will help him find a home. He had just arrived at the burned building two months ago, having been recently released from jail.

“I don’t want to sleep on the streets,” he said. “Now I need to start again.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Nancy Lopez. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Most of those sheltering at the Salvation Army on Sunday said they did not have family or friends to turn to for permanent shelter and would rely on aid from the city. San Francisco has a Good Samaritan Program that allows landlords to take in tenants for up to two years at below-market-rate rents, and Mayor Ed Lee said on Saturday that he would call on landlords to make empty units available to the city.

Sorting donations at the shelter, Edwin Lindo, who helped set up a spreadsheet with items needed by displaced families, criticized the city for its lack of concrete action.

“The city has failed these people,” he said. “This is the sixth or seventh fire and there still isn’t a process to help these families.”

Hillary Ronen, chief of staff for Supervisor David Campos, was on-scene Saturday telling tenants that their office will help them through the process of finding housing and replacing certain items, like passports and other documents.

For Stephanie Wilson, her room at 3308 Mission St. above the 3300 Club had been a significant step up after being homeless for three years. Now she is back where she started.

“It can’t get no worse I hope. I just thank God, you know, but I want to go home,” she said, fighting tears. “Anywhere I can call my own.”

Wilson also lost two kittens to the fire. She doesn’t have any alternative places to go, but her daugther comes to check on her at the shelter.

 Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

On the Scene

At the scene of the fire, passers-by stopped to stare and take photos of the gutted block. The corner building, home to the beloved 3300 Club and the Graywood Hotel, looked deceptively intact — if completely flooded.

The bar is likely irreparably damaged by water from firefighting efforts, according to Peter O’Connell, a bartender there. O’Connell was supposed to work his last shift, and enjoy a sendoff celebration, before moving to Brooklyn the night of the fire. As movers transferred his belongings to a truck from his apartment down the street, he noticed the smoke.

Sitting on a side street near the scene on Sunday afternoon, O’Connell called it “surreal.”

Cole Hardware and Playa Azul were destroyed, and other businesses — including the taquerías El Gran Taco Loco and La Alteña, the restaurant El Paisa and the bar Coronitas, the law offices of Lacayo & Associates, and the cannabis dispensary Bernal Heights Collective — were also closed on Sunday. In total, nine businesses suffered extensively from either fire or water damage.

One business had better luck.

The Front Porch at the corner of 29th and Tiffany streets bustled with Father’s Day reservations on Sunday. It had been a close call, said owner Josey White. Neighbors came with sandbags and even bags of clothes to stem the two-and-a-half-foot high tide of murky water flooding down the street the day of the fire.

When a late-night flare-up led to even more flooding from firefighter hoses on Saturday, White said neighbors came down on their own and piled sandbags near the restaurant’s entrance.

“We would have been flooded for sure,” she said.

The restaurant also happens to be the workplace of one of the displaced tenants, Luis Herrera. While they have set up a GoFundMe campaign to assist him and his family, the restaurant will also add a menu item whose proceeds will go directly to Herrera’s family.

If you want to help those affected by the fire, please see our story on how to help. A general fundraiser campaign has been set up here.

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One Comment

  1. Here’s a radical idea. Let’s have Airbnb urge its hosts to offer afforadable short-, medium-, long- and permanent housing to the displaced folks.

    I’d also like to push the more fancier hotels around town to set aside rooms for these people and have the bill paid by the likes of Ron Conway and Marc Benioff and the Zuckerberg dude.

    All of the displaced should stay in San Francisco and in housing situations they can afford.

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