Since a five-alarm fire in June displaced Kimberly Walley and her husband, Henry Texada, from the single room occupancy hotel where they had been living for some five years, the couple had fallen on hard times, seemingly unplaceable by officials who had promised to find homes for all of those displaced in the fire.
But on Thursday, Walley stood in front of a friend’s tent, her face beaming with relief as she reported that they had stopped by the 16th and Shotwell streets tent encampment where they most recently lived to “say bye to our friends and pick up a few of our things.”
On October 1, Walley and Texada moved into a room in Visitacion Valley, ending their nearly two-month stint of homelessness.
“We got a house,” Walley said, smiling widely. “Well actually it’s a room. We already paid our rent.”
With $1,400 in rental assistance from the city, Walley and Texada are paying their new landlord $681 of that amount – which was their original rent at the Graywood Hotel at 3308 Mission St., before the fire struck.
The couple reported initially being shuffled between shelters and hotel rooms, but were unable to find permanent housing, in one instance because they refused to give up their bicycles – one of the belongings that they managed to salvage from their burned building and their main mode of transportation.
When her therapist stepped in to help Walley – who suffers from depression – find a case manager so that she would be eligible for city housing programs, Walley said she refused because she didn’t want to leave her husband behind.
It wasn’t until news of the couple’s homelessness broke in Mission Local that they were contacted by Sam Dodge, deputy director at the city’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, who walked Walley and Texada through the steps of getting housing.
Following their intake with Dodge, “[he] put us on all the lists,” said Walley. “What we did in an amount of [months] that we spent [before being] introduced to him, he did in a few weeks.”
Walley said she got a “confirmation number” that connected her case to the department.
“All it took was a number and for him to call some people that are really specialized in helping. And they did it. That’s the HSA’s job – not just to subsidize the rent but to at least help you find a place to be in,” she said.
Dodge said that he counseled Walley on how to use her rent voucher in a shared housing situation.
“She’s been told that previously but she hadn’t really understood it – that really was very inspiring to her,” said Dodge. “She got to work on that and found this situation. The property owner is a really special person.”
That person is 31-year-old Visitacion Valley resident Kelly Nelson, who said she had met Walley previous to the fire at Glide Church Memorial. When the women crossed paths again at another church last month, Nelson said she was approached by Walley, who asked for help.
“I basically got up in church and said, ‘does anybody have a burning desire to help?” said Walley.
Nelson said that she felt moved by Walley. “People need to help more, this homeless problem is getting ridiculous. There are people sleeping on sidewalks, not knowing where to go.”
The room that Walley and her husband share is simple, said Nelson – furnished with just the necessities.
“It’s a roof, and they have their own space,” she said. “They have blankets to stay warm and a window you can look out of.”
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Now there remains only one of the 58 tenants displaced by the fire in June who is homeless.
Michelle Thompson, who shared a room at the Graywood with her former partner, a U.S. Marines veteran, is living in a tent encampment at 15th and Potrero streets.
While her former partner is receiving VA assistance and has managed to secure a place to live – and although Thompson claimed that her name is also on that new lease – the couple has been at odds since the fire.
“I’m not gonna be with someone for a place to live,” she said. But as a dog owner with several serious health concerns securing permanent housing has proven difficult for her.
Thompson said she suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, numbness of her hands and pain from a knee replacement and has been without medication for some time.
After the fire, Thompson said she was placed in an SRO by the city’s Human Services Agency for some two and a half weeks, bouncing between two downtown hotels. “That’s all the extensions they could get,” she said, referring to the agency’s arrangements with the hotels to house several of the displaced fire tenants.
Most recently, Thompson, who owns a small terrier, said that she attempted to rent a room at an SRO in the city but was told at check-in that only she could stay and that her dog would have to go to the pound. She said the dog is a licensed therapy animal, but that she lost the tags to verify this.
Although Thompson said that she is desperate for housing, she refused to give up her dog, and instead, she returned to the streets.
Ben Amyes, of the Human Services Agency, confirmed that certain SROs regulations could block tenants seeking housing.
“There are pet issues and then there are companion animal ADA (American with Disability Act) issues and if somebody comes up with a pet then they need to work out the pet issue between the housing provider and themselves,” said Amyes.
“If it’s an ADA issue they need to be very clear with the landlord that they’re dealing with an ADA issue,” Amyes added, referring to the federal act that requires establishments to make special accommodations for a dog that has been trained to work for a person with a disability.
Amyes said that while he knew that Walley had recently been housed through the city’s rent subsidy program he said that Thompson has not contacted the agency for help.
“She’s known to our system so she just needs to come forward and want to work with us because there are some things that she’s going to need to do,’ said Amyes, adding that an individual looking for housing is “going to need to find a landlord who is going to submit to us a lease and a copy of their w9 so we can get them set up into system as a vendor.”
It is unclear if Thompson plans to contact the agency.
Laura Wenus contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named a specific SRO that turned Thompson away for having a dog. The reference has been removed.
Indeed, it is challenging and frustrating to find a place to stay in San Francisco, and I’m sorry to read about Michelle Thompson’s struggles in the aftermath of the Cole Hardware fire which displaced so many tenants above and adjacent to the business. For supportive housing properties like the Altamont Hotel, all referrals come from Coordinated Entry and Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. People can’t just walk in and check into a unit. These are permanent housing units, not transient hotel rooms, and all applicants must be referred directly by the City, via the SF START team, and applicants and residents are permitted service animals, as well as emotional support and companion animals I hope the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and the City can make it easier to navigate housing for folks who are desperately seeking shelter. I remember how difficult and challenging it was when I was homeless, and my heart goes out to everyone who currently faces this struggle..