As the displaced tenants and businesses of the fire on 29th Street pick up the pieces, Mission Local talked to residential and commercial tenants from the January 2015 fire at Mission and 22nd streets to see what advice they might have to offer on the aftermath of a fire.
In sum, friends, insurance and immediate cash assistance provided the most help, but even for those who are completely uninjured, residents said they still feel the effects of the trauma.
“When something like that happens, you don’t even know how to react, you are in shock and it’s difficult to accept,” said displaced resident Araceli Tolama.
One of her neighbors, Humberto Lopez, agreed.
“It’s harsh, the experience. You are in shock. You have to move forward,” he said. “I would talk to friends and they would tell me that it was something that just happened, an accident.”
Many, for example, are particularly sensitive to signs of fire that can arise even in benign situations. Yanira Sanchez lived on the third floor at Mission and 22nd streets.
“You end up so traumatized,” Sanchez said. “Anytime you hear sirens or smell smoke, like barbecues? You know? It’s scary…Until you realize it’s not you.”
Lopez was able to go to therapy to process the trauma.
“I went to a therapist and that helped, and I cried, so that helped me,” he said.
Sanchez declined to see a therapist, but mostly because she had a furry one right in her house. She said her dog Charlie was her best therapy.
“He has been the best for me. I know he is waiting for me at home and I am happy about that, because it’s so tough to go through losing everything and your feelings are so raw,” she explained.
“You don’t know what the future will look like and your mind becomes overwhelmed with that. And how can a little dog have helped me so much? It made me want to get through in life. I just want to come home and spend time with him, I walk him…he is my big joy.”
Friends helped Tolama get through a tough time, and it was the thought of her children that pushed her to seek help and find a place to live.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” she said. “Mostly my friends helped me by watching out for my kids…. I had to see how to get my kids forward, I didn’t [know] if the city would help us or not, I couldn’t rely on anyone, and I wasn’t going to wait.”
Tolama ended up finding housing on her own, but she warned about predatory landlords, having dealt with a new landlord who charged high rent but kept her unit in dismal condition with mice, cockroaches and bedbugs.
While material possessions are replaceable, the three tenants said they appreciated the funds raised by the community – a Gofundme campaign in 2015 raised $180,000 for the tenants, and distribution was managed by the Mission Economic Development Agency, or MEDA.
“The fundraisers were useful, because you end up with nothing and that helps you in general,” said Tolama. “Basic stuff, not so much material things, more substantial, but basic things like being able to eat.”
“At first, you are in a shelter, then a hotel, and it was very bad. But, the monetary help given to us helped us a bit to get back up on our feet, to not be on the streets,” Lopez explained.
Later, Lopez and his partner Eugenia Aldama were relocated by the city to Parkmerced. While they feel isolated, Lopez said the housing calmed the situation down.
Sanchez said she also has renter’s insurance now, which almost nobody affected by the 2015 fire had and which can sometimes help pay for temporary shelter or replace more expensive possessions.
She said she has adjusted to life on Treasure Island – even what she described as the horrendous commutes. Some days she carpools with a coworker. Other days it’s an hour long bus ride.
“Now I am used to the schedule, used to the fact that takes an hour,” she said. “Little by little, life starts feeling like it’s normal again.”
Businesses are a different matter. Many commercial tenants lost their spaces, inventory and records in the 2015 fire and still bear the fallout.
“It’s difficult in the first few days to hear everyone say they are sorry. But then, you get up back on your feet and deal with inconveniences,” said Nancy Ortega, who ran the restaurant El Perol in the ground floor of the Mission and 22nd street building.
Ortega has since relocated her business to Marin, where she is making ends meet but is frustrated by an even slower permitting process than San Francisco and a lack of follow-through from her would-be supporters in San Francisco.
“After a while, you get no help, and that is the problem,” she said. “You may get relocated but after that, what? If you are a business you don’t have anything, if you have no insurance you have no protection, and if you have it you have to deal with the insurance, you don’t get the money right away.”
Insurance is the main concern for a business after a disaster, according to two other business owners affected by the fire.
“The only thing should do is find out if they had coverage with their insurance and to be prepared…they may not renew their policies in case there’s a lot of loss,” noted Araceli Espinoza, who runs Thalia’s Jewelry Shop on Mission Street.
Espinoza and her husband relocated their business by two blocks after the fire, but now have a $4,000 rent bill to pay on their commercial space and also made the unpleasant discovery that foot traffic is drastically lower at their new location south of 24th Street’s BART station than it was on 22nd Street. In fact, Espinoza and her husband only manage to make rent at the new location by selling their wares at a flea market in Modesto several days a week.
Next door to the building destroyed by the 2015 fire, Los Shucos Latin Hotdogs was flooded out of business. The hot dog joint was forced to close down not once, but three times by firefighting efforts. Owner Sofia Keck agreed that insurance was difficult to deal with but had an ally in the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Her husband helped deal with the insurance.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to have insurance but also how bothersome to deal with insurance can be,” Keck wrote. “If you are not happy with your adjuster don’t be afraid to ask for someone else. Document everything and contact them daily to know where your case is at.”
While Gofundme campaigns for the tenants displaced in the 2015 fire were largely fruitful, both Espinoza and Ortega were disappointed by a similar fundraising effort for businesses launched by MEDA.
“I didn’t see one cent from MEDA for the businesses, no one from MEDA called me, I didn’t see or know if they gave money,” said Ortega.
“They did help, but they took forever to give us the money they raised,” Espinoza said. “If MEDA is going to participate in doing anything to recover some money for the affected people, they need to do it. Like, raise the money and give them the money as soon as possible… There’s bills to pay, they’re not gonna wait until they finish giving us whatever the people gave us!”
MEDA’s Gabriel Medina explained that the nonprofit thought it would be able to raise significantly more money for businesses than they did, and consequently kept the fundraiser running for longer than they had hoped, delaying distribution. Momentum was also harder to come by for business assistance.
“Tenants will get a lot more,” Medina said, “It’s really hard to raise money for businesses.”
After the 2015 fire, however, the city established a disaster fund for businesses, which has been activated to assist the businesses displaced by the Mission and 29th street fire. The Mission-Bernal Merchants have also been fundraising and coordinating to help businesses start anew.
Meanwhile, life goes on for last year’s victims.
“They say it takes around two years of being in business to build a sustainable business, and we have not yet been open for a whole consecutive year because of all the fires, so we knew we had to keep going,” wrote Keck. “The only way to get out of some things is to go through them, and the only way to move is forward.”