When fire destroyed Fernando and Carmen Chamorro’s home of twelve years above the Palace Steakhouse on Mission Street near Cesar Chavez street, Fernando already knew what was coming, predicting that tenants would likely be out of a home for a year or more awaiting renovations.
“It’s inevitable,” he said at the time, “because the fire was through the roof.”
He did not expect that six months later, he and his wife would have spent months living in their car.
“So we are worse than before. Still in the car,” he said in early June. “No bathroom, no room, no nothing”
The Chamorros have been to single-resident occupancy hotels and are applying for housing. The shared bathroom at the SRO gave Fernando a foot fungus, and the housing applications haven’t panned out yet. Finding something on the open market is out of the question. Instead, they are waiting out the time for the renovations on their damaged apartment to be complete — possibly by December.
“We both worked, retired with insurance and me, from a union, but it’s so expensive we cannot get anything,” Chamorro said. “Market price is so high.”
He’s even become involved politically, seeking help from Supervisor David Campos. In April, he appeared in a press conference called by Campos to support new fire legislation that would require better communication from landlords to the city after a fire.
Eventually, disappointed by the supervisor’s inability to find him and his wife a permanent place to stay, Chamorro abandoned that course of action.
Ben Amyes, who helps those displaced by disasters find a place to stay through the city’s Human Services Agency, remembered the Chamorros.
“Because they were seniors, they were my highest priority,” he said.
He referred them to services in Spanish, where it transpired that the Chamorros had purchased renters’ insurance.
“We referred them out to another agency to let us know that they were working with them, and they did, in fact have insurance. So they were supposed to have been using their insurance,” Amyes said.
Alicia Sandoval, who helps tenants through the Housing Rights Coalition, explained the couple is in communication with their insurance provider and has been provided some assistance in paying for a hotel, but that it’s unclear how long the hotel stay will last.
Some of the temporary housing options Chamorro explored, particularly SROs, also came with a different problem: Shared bathrooms, drug addict neighbors, and filthy conditions felt like a punishment he didn’t deserve.
“We are good, hard working people,” Chamorro said. “We don’t belong there.”
With that and the option of assistance from renters’ insurance exhausted, Amyes said it was time to step back.
“I can show them the way, but if they choose not to go there, one of the hardest lessons about being a social worker is you can’t want it more than your client,” he said.
Aid workers often emphasize that the refusal of services is exceedingly rare among homeless individuals. But when the service offered does not meet the need, no amount of goodwill will solve the problem. In this case, as with many homeless individuals, the main need is to find or return to a place that can truly be called home.
“I have not met anyone in my years of doing this work that if gave him a set of keys for adequate housing that they would turn it down,” said Kelley Cutler, an outreach worker with the Coalition on Homelessness, in a recent interview about services available to the homeless.
But many, she said, no longer believe that anything offered will fulfill their need: “If you dig a little deeper, a lot of people have given up hope for any change or to be helped.”
For the Chamorros, at least, the situation in the car may be bleak, but not all hope is lost. They have heard from their landlord that the renovations, which Amyes said should not be very extensive, should be complete in December — at which point they should be able to return home.
See the rest of our coverage as part of the SF Homeless Project days of media attention to homelessness here: