Despite promises from city leaders that the 58 tenants displaced by the fire at 29th and Mission streets would be housed, at least two tenants from the Graywood Hotel, which was ravaged by a five-alarm fire in June, are again homeless and living in a tent on 16th Street near Folsom Street.
“The mayor said that none of us was gonna go homeless,” said Kimberly Walley on a recent Thursday while standing in front of a tent she shares with her husband Henry Texada. “He said it in the Safeway parking lot.”
Indeed, Mayor Ed Lee did make assurances when he visited fire victims, but the story of Walley and Texada is not simply one of a broken promise. It offers a window into how tenants living on the edge can be difficult to house. Places are limited, would-be landlords have requirements that some on the street find untenable and city officials have mixed views on how much help is enough. In the end, the story of Walley and Texada demonstrates that even with the best of intentions, tenants displaced by fires can remain on the streets indefinitely.
To make good on his promise, Lee called on the private sector to help house tenants by invoking the Good Samaritan Law, a city law that asks landlords to make their rooms available at below-market-rate rents for one to two years.
Those displaced from apartments were housed using this law or through other agencies, said Deirdre Hussey, of the Mayor’s Office. But others had been displaced from the Graywood, a single room occupancy hotel at 3308 Mission Street.
Mission District Supervisor David Campos’ office secured $300,000 from the city budget to be funneled into rental assistance for displaced tenants.
“Our understanding was that no one would become homeless and our expectation was that there would be housing for people,” said Carolyn Goossen, legislative aide to Campos.
Since the fire, Walley and Texada have shuffled between shelters, hotels and SROs— many of the latter would not let them stay permanently because they had too many belongings, including bicycles. A $2,000 check from a community fundraising effort has helped pay for these rooms, and the couple will get another check soon.
The couple said that they have visited dozens of SRO hotels in the Mission, Tenderloin, Oakland, Sacramento, and Concord, and have been rejected from all of them. None of the hotels, they said, would accept them – even with a letter from the city saying the Human Services Agency would pay rent up to $1,400 a month on their behalf.
“We went to every place they gave us, even places they didn’t give us,” said Walley.
Walley and Texada were rejected from one Mission District hotel where they had been placed following the blaze, she said, for having “too much stuff.”
“They wouldn’t let us take our bicycles, but that’s our main mode of transportation,” said Walley. She said she had no money to buy a lock to park it on the street.
The couple was kicked out of another hotel, the Tropicana at 633 Valencia St., because management accused them of stealing a wall plug — an accusation that Walley contested.
“They told us we were too loud,” said Walley, adding that the hotel’s management later told her therapist that the couple had “destroyed the room,” but never directed this accusation at the couple. Requests for comment by the hotel’s management were not returned by press time.
“I wanted to commit suicide right then and there, right then and there, because I was just fed up with all of this,” Walley said through tears. “What are we doing? We’re not doing anything to anybody.”
She said they had lived at the Graywood Hotel at 3308 Mission St. for five years. Before that, Walley was homeless for some 13 years.
Walley said that other hotels declined to accept the payment from the Human Services Agency because the couple has no case manager. She said the agency pointed them specifically to the Dahlia Hotel on Turk Street as a place that would accept the rental assistance, but the Dahlia rejected them too.
Mission Local’s calls to the hotel’s management went unanswered.
“The man took two days and still said no,” said Walley. She’s contacted the Human Services Agency several times.
“They said they’re not finding us a place, that we gotta do it all on our own,” she said.
Ben Amyes, the agency’s emergency response coordinator, declined to comment on the couple’s case for confidentiality reasons.
“We were working on finding SROs for all of the tenants, and I have placed everyone that I have had the ability to place,” Aymes said. “There are extenuating circumstances [regarding Walley and Texada] that I’m not able to go into.”
Walley said that she has a criminal background including a charge for assault that landed her in jail for nine months. This happened before moving into the Graywood in March, 2011. She also said she suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, but visits a therapist regularly.
Despite this history she found a room at the Graywood Hotel in 2011 through a re-entry program, NoVa, run by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in partnership with the Sheriff’s Department.
Gerald Miller, the center’s director of community based services, did not work with Walley but said that she was likely a client five years ago. Upon hearing of her plight, Miller said that mental illness and a criminal background are not reasons for keeping clients seeking SRO residencies unhoused.
“[Those] issues don’t stop anyone from getting SRO housing,” said Miller. However, other factors, such as a limited housing stock and a client’s consistent refusal to comply with the terms of the agencies attempting to house them, could be a reasons why they end up on the streets.
“If you tell someone you need to do this in order to get this done and they refuse, I think the responsibility lies with the individuals who refuse [to comply], even though that decision is often made from a dark place in another world,” said Miller, referring to clients with mental illness.
“When it comes to city agencies offering assistance, you get one, maybe two shots, three if you’re lucky – then you’re on your own,” he said. “There are so many people out there who are willing to do whatever they can to get housed.”
Chirag Bhakta, the outreach and campaign coordinator for the Mission SRO Collaborative, said that they had also been helping the couple. He was unaware that they are now on the street, but he knew they had been having trouble finding housing.
Bhakta said he contacted the Human Services Agency last week to check on their case.
He was then told that the agency would offer the couple rental assistance – but that Walley and Texada would have to find a place to live first.
Bhakta said his organization currently has no available SRO rooms. He added that the couple has the option of being put up in a shelter, but declined.
Sam Dodge, director of policy and communications of the city’s department of homelessness, said that because of the city’s limited housing stock, this decision is problematic.
“A shelter can be instrumental in getting people into permanent housing,” said Dodge, adding that while their refusal to enter a shelter complicates their case, the couple is still eligible for housing assistance. “It wasn’t the fire that lost them their hotel units – it seems that these other hotels didn’t work out because of behaviors. Incidents happened at these hotels that were unique to these people.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t eligible for more assistance,” he said, explaining that at least Walley qualifies for supportive housing because of her previous long-term homelessness.
When asked if Walley and Texada were offered a spot in the the city’s Navigation Center, a full service homeless shelter that allows its residents to room as couples, bring their pets, and store their property on its premises, Dodge said no, but that he is “hopeful that this could be an option for them.”
Walley confirmed that she declined to move into another shelter because she could not understand why she had to choose between a shelter and the streets, when other tenants displaced by the fire have been housed.
“I’m not going to no shelter because I didn’t come from one,” said Walley.
She said she has been “subjected to shelters before” and felt safer on the streets — but still has to alternate sleep schedules with Texada to guard for thieves.
However, Walley said they would move into the Navigation Center immediately, should that become an option for them.
“I’d go to the new one they opened on 12th Street because they have real rooms, not dorms where we have to worry about people stealing our things or messing with us,” she said. “At least at the Navigation Center my husband and I can be together in our own room, like we were before.”