Tenants passing through the Mission Hotel lobby did a double take when they saw Postal Carrier Barbara Ornelas filling the postal boxes.
“Is that the mail lady?” One resident asked as he shuffled towards her through the lobby earlier this month. “You’re back!”
“We missed you!” said another. “Am I glad to see you!
It had been nearly three months since Ornelas entered the Mission Hotel, located at 520 South Van Ness Ave., and stuffed each mailbox with letters, checks and packages. That’s because nearly 250 tenants stopped receiving their mail from the United States Postal Service.
For close to two weeks in July, tenants received no mail, and once service resumed, the postal carrier simply dropped off a large bag of mail at the front desk, expecting the management to sort it out.
When tenants began receiving notices and social security checks late, the Central City SRO Collaborative –a nonprofit that works with SRO tenants and manages the Mission Hotel – took action and had the decision reversed. District 9 Supervisor David Campos and California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi also stepped in to put pressure on the postal service.
Robert Gans, a two- year resident of the Mission hotel, who like many of the residents is in his mid-50s, called the suspension more than just an inconvenience.
“I had an insurance claim come in late and letters from my family,” Gans said. “They should have delivered those to my box. These are government employees; that’s what they get paid for.”
His complaint was echoed by Mitch Orsaba, a construction worker who has lived at the SRO for three years.
“This is what you need to pay the rent. If you cut off the [mail] service, then you can’t pay your rent.”
Some 19,000 San Francisco residents live in one of the city’s 580 Single-room Occupancy hotels, according to Rio Scharf, a community organizer with the SRO Collaborative.
Though most of these SROs receive mail service to a single point –like the front desk– the Mission Hotel is one of 150 SROs that had enjoyed direct delivery to each tenant’s mailbox. When service got disrupted, it meant that many low-income residents, including veterans, disabled, and the elderly were receiving checks, housing opportunities and appointment notices late.
Some tenants lost their benefits for a period of time, and missed important appointments as notices arrived late. Other tenants alleged that once service resumed, distribution was left up to the hotel, resulting in the management holding onto checks if the tenants were behind on rent.
“The tenants felt they were being pushed off,” said Rene Romero of the Mission Hotel management. “They weren’t being treated like tenants by the post office.”
If anything went missing, the staff would get blamed, said Scharf.
This caused a “tremendous amount of complications and friction between tenants and staff,” he said.
Luisa Cabrera, an assistant manager at the hotel, added: “It was a lot of responsibility and it took us time to put it in order then sort it.”
The daily deliveries to individual mail boxes stopped when the postal service began identifying the Mission Hotel as just exact that – a hotel. Hotels, they argued, don’t receive mail individually delivered to each guest.
While the SRO and hotel management understood that the postal service had suspended service because it had re-designated the place as a hotel, residents also knew that one of the tenants had allegedly assaulted a postal worker at the hotel.
Ornelas said the service stopped dropping the mail into individual boxes after that assault. “I used to do that everyday. And then the incident happened.”
Ornelas said the postal carrier was harassed at Mission Hotel. While the carrier didn’t report it to management, she reported it to the postmaster. According to management, the postmaster then ordered individual mail distribution in each box to be discontinued.
“It was never brought to our attention,” Romero said. “The post office was never able to identify who it was.”
But Ornelas said harassment was a common occurrence, and nothing new. She said many carriers were harassed over the years, including herself. Months ago, one Mission Hotel resident continuously screamed at her to hurry up.
“I fight back at them,” Ornelas said. “My main problem are the dogs-mostly the pit bulls that live here.”
Moments later a tenant and his pit bull narrowly graze Ornelas as they exit the building.
“See what I mean?” she said.
While Scharf calls the reversal a success, he said thousands of SRO residents in San Francisco do not receive their mail in a mailbox.
It is unclear how long the postal service will continue to deliver to individual mail boxes at the Mission Hotel because legally, they are not required to do so.
The Board of Supervisors in 2006 passed legislation requiring owners of residential hotels to install individual mailboxes for permanent residents. The ordinance was passed at the state level a year later.
While the postal service first complied with delivering to mailboxes at hotels that had installed them, the agency later switched back to centralized delivery. But some SROs, including the Mission Hotel, continued to receive mail in their boxes.
In 2009 a lawsuit launched by SRO tenants rights groups and City Attorney Dennis Herrera was dismissed by a federal judge, ruling that the postal service made a reasonable decision by taking cost-saving measures to drop off mail in a single location.
An appeals court again sided with the postal service in 2013, ruling that the “transient” nature of SRO tenants made individual box delivery more complicated and expensive.
For now, tenants at the Mission Hotel are getting their mail individually and argue that it should continue.
“If this was a condo with 100 urban professionals in it, they would never stop delivering mail to them,” said Mission hotel tenant Orsaba.