A former go-go dancer and taxicab robber who had hoped to start life afresh at the Graywood Hotel is the last tenant displaced by the June fire who remains on the streets.
Michelle Thompson’s story demonstrates how difficult it is to place some clients who resist housing because of what they have to leave behind: their personal belongings, friends and pets.
Yes, there is a deficit of housing for the 6,700 homeless residents of San Francisco, but there are also clients who are difficult to place even when housing and resources are available.
Some 25 percent of those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco have experienced homelessness four or more times in the past, according to a 2015 survey. Thompson said she’s lived a rough life, but has never before lived in a tent.
“I’ve been on my own, struggling as a street person, but never homeless. I managed,” she said.
Thompson’s road to homelessness is one marked by trauma and at times – as demonstrated by her recent displacement by a five-alarm fire from the Graywood Hotel, the SRO at 3308 Mission St. where she lived for six months – calamities that were out of her control.
Thompson shrugs at her fate. “I’ve been on my own since I was 12,” said Thompson, who is now in her 40s and spent nearly half of her life in prison. The Seattle native ran away from home as a child to escape abuse and never looked back.
Her case is also particularly troublesome because she now suffers from cirrhosis of the liver and State 4 hepatitis C. “I’m dying,” she said.
Her status as a fire victim put her at the top of the list for housing in June – but even that stature failed to end in a new place to live. Since July, Thompson has been living in a tent on 15th and Bryant streets with her dog.
At the Graywood, Thompson shared a room with her former partner, a U.S. Marine Veteran. The two met shortly after Thompson was released from prison, and Thompson thought that she had at last found some stability.
But during the weeks after the fire, Thompson said, the relationship quickly turned hostile.
“We were fighting – I walked away. I knew what was best for myself, being on parole,” she said – shortly before she moved into the Graywood, Thompson had served 18 years in prison for a string of armed robberies, she said.
After the fire, Thompson’s case was referred to the Human Services Agency, responsible for placing the fire victims in temporary housing. Thompson’s partner was quickly able to find an apartment through his Veteran Assistance benefits, and Thompson believed her name was put on his lease.
Thompson asked to be housed separately, but said she was told that her placement was “only for a family of two” and that she would need to stay with her ex.
“I’m not gonna be with someone for a place to stay,” she said.
Ben Amyes, Emergency Services Coordinator at the city’s Human Services Agency, said that Thompson got the wrong information. “We were housing them separately. We were never going try to ask them to live together because they didn’t want to,” he said.
Several weeks later, the agency offered her a single room in an SRO in the Tenderloin, said Amyes. But, by that time, someone had given Thompson a dog and she refused to give it up.
“When it comes time to house her, she had a [new] partner and a dog, and that was not part of the original appeal,” said Amyes.
When she arrived at the Tenderloin SRO that the city placed her in, she said “they also brought the pound with them.”
“They expected…they wanted me to give him up,” she said, sobbing violently. She refused. “I know what it’s like to feel abandonment. The only thing I could do is get a tent – So I did.”
Randy Quezada, communications manager at the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that hanging on to pets was not uncommon. “The bond between people and their animals is significant especially for people who have experienced trauma,” he said. Nevertheless, he added, pets “ are challenging in traditional shelters.”
Quezada said that his department “doesn’t give up” on difficult cases like Thompon’s.
“Every situation is a little different. It means we have to find the right opportunity to connect them to resources,” he said, adding that the Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St., a transitional shelter where clients are permitted to enter with pets and human partners, accommodates those with special circumstances.
But Thompson said that she has not been offered a bed at the center, and that she was told by outreach workers that she “wasn’t homeless long enough,” and doesn’t fit the criteria.
“But I’m a disaster [victim], shouldn’t I have first priority?” she said.
Most recently, Thompson said that she’s contacted an “old associate” who has offered to rent a room to her, though the offer seems conditional. “I hope he doesn’t want more,” she said.
On the streets, the same pattern emerged – men who tout themselves her friends and offer to protect her belongings from theft then “catch feelings.”
“They say they’ll watch your stuff when you leave and we have eachother’s back in the encampment,” she said, referring to her fellow campers. “What happens is they say it’s strictly a friendship thing, but they all catch feelings.”
Amyes said that Thompson is still eligible for the city’s subsidized rent program in which the city will cover her rent up to $1,400. But, like other tenants from the Graywood, “she has to find a place for herself, a landlord that is willing to take her.”
That has not happened. Instead she finds herself overwhelmed. Life on the streets isn’t easy – she has been robbed on multiple occasions, lost her medication, and her cell phone has been disconnected for some two weeks.
Thompson said she needs help and called the city’s stipulation of finding her own housing after disaster “unfair.”
“By no means do I not want housing, I still need housing,” she said. “I’m tired, I’ve lived hell. Now I’m waiting for heaven, or something better. I’m willing to do whatever I gotta do.”