While the rest of the city dreams of post-pandemic life, Sonia Alverenga has barely slept a wink. For more than a year, the undercurrent of her nightmares feature her $14,000 rent debt. If she does rest, reality is a rude awakening; she still has zero income. On June 1, her debt will reach near $15,000 and, in July, close to $16,250. So it grows, month-by-month.
“This year has not passed peacefully,” Alvarenga said in Spanish.
The last time Alvarenga worked, she clocked in to scrub the Moscone Center on the night shift in February, 2020, mere weeks after she had moved into a new apartment in the Excelsior. By mid-March, convention centers were deemed sites of potential viral superspreader events, and the industry still hasn’t returned to full capacity today. Unlike others shut out of a job, Alvarenga’s immigration status leaves her out of unemployment relief.
In San Francisco, Covid-19 devastated thousands of those like Alvarenga the most. The southeast sector, where she lives, consistently tops the city’s record for new cases and fastest viral transmission. And it’s no coincidence: it’s where many low-income Latinx residents live. Early on, UCSF and the Latino Task Force discovered that these factors played a huge role in determining who’s most at risk for getting sick.
When the two groups decided to test out their hypothesis in April, 2020, they chose Census Tract 229.01 in the Mission, the tract with the highest number of Latinx residents: 58 percent.
These 16 or so blocks shape a rectangle and run from 23rd to Cesar Chavez streets, and from South Van Ness Avenue to Harrison Street. They also reveal wide disparities: about 32 percent of residents are white, and nearly 45 percent of residents earn more than $100,000, while nearly 35 percent of the households earn under $50,000.
As numerous medical experts and sociologists predicted, the pandemic only heightened these disparities. Like Alvarenga, many have become scavengers of free resources, and can rattle off food pantry schedules across the city: near the Civic Center on Tuesdays and Fridays, 18th Street on Saturdays. At some of these, Alvarenga has been able to find other help. At the HOMEY SF/Faith in Action food pantry, for example, she connected to volunteers at Faith in Action Bay Area, a local network of religious groups and leaders, who assist when they can: a paid Clipper Card, daily free lunch.
Faith in Action volunteers added her name along with at least 9,000 others to a list of those desperately seeking rent relief from the city. At the time, Alvarenga was among the 16 percent of applicants who actually received it, amounting to a check worth two months of rent. That was two months less than she originally asked for. Though she tries to avoid thinking about the future, at bedtime it’s inevitable.
“If I can’t pay, then what?” the 54-year-old asked, choking up. “Are they going to push us out on the streets?”
Within the Mission Census tract 229.01, both documented and undocumented residents of varying ethnicities recounted how they have eked out an existence with no work: relying on friends or family for loans or cell phone bills, emptying out years’ worth of savings, fruitlessly scanning job listings or city grants, and depending on food banks for meals.
Blanca Martin held her friend Aldea, 66, by the arm as they hobbled down Folsom Street near 23rd Street. Both worked as caretakers for the elderly at the same company, and lost their jobs last year. Aldea, a Salvadoran who lives on 24th Street, has been able to get by on the help of her four children and food boxes from the Resource Hub on Alabama Street, but the stress has created numerous ailments, including major depression. “I scream, I cry every day,” she said in Spanish.
Her friend, Martin, is in the same situation, but with the support of only one daughter. She lives alone on 25th, and is out $4,500 in debt; she got $1,285 from the city, as a result of contracting Covid-19 this winter. Every day, she frantically calls the state Employment Development Department as well as nonprofit groups, and scans job listings for anything available. “I’m calling, calling, calling every day, as soon as I wake up. La Raza. MEDA. Catholic Charities. Human Support Services. They either never answered me, or can’t help right now because everyone needs it.”
Martin has lived on 25th Street since 1996. She originally moved from Honduras and is a temporary protected status holder. Moving to other cities in the Bay Area isn’t a solution if she can’t put up the cash. “I’m going to be kicked out on the street.”
It’s clear that, in addition to facing mounting bills, some residents feel stuck as the city reopens and their own lives stay stagnant. On a Tuesday morning at 10, Luna, 58, was still in her purple bathrobe, while her software engineer neighbor a few doors down grabbed a coffee at Philz before resuming programming. Luna has worked since she was 17. Not being able to do so at present has left her depressed.
As an aspiring Black science fiction writer, Luna used to write “3,000 words a day.” For the last month, her anxiety has prevented her from writing a word. She needs to “detox” herself of anxiety by meditating before bed, or she can’t rest.
And there’s a lot to purge. Luna lost her retail job in April, 2020, and the last unemployment check arrived in February of this year. Her daughter’s wedding had to be postponed. “It sucks,” Luna said.
Fixed housing has been impossible to keep and Luna has bounced all over in the past year: Fairfield, Oakland, Antioch, Pittsburg. Finally, she landed in a house on Folsom Street with five roommates, but she still struggles to make ends meet.
“This is my home,” she said, despondent at the possibility of having to leave San Francisco again. “But I need to come up with a job or rent soon.”
While 24th Street bustles just around the corner, Steve sits still on his stoop, cigarette dangling in hand. It’s been 14 months since the 70-year-old was in the driver’s seat, parking cars at his job downtown. These days, his street is packed with neighbors’ vehicles; their owners now have no other place to be.
He applied for unemployment shortly after being laid off in March, but didn’t receive it until September. In the interim, Steve estimates he dipped into financial reserves 25 years in the making, some tens of thousands of dollars. “I had a 401(k), and some savings, and now it’s all gone.”
It went toward providing food for his sister, Lynn, who lives downstairs and has a disability, and footing his own insurance bill after he lost the one tied to his job. Then comes the mortgage for the house passed down generationally from his family, where Steve and Lynn grew up decades ago, along with taxes, and fire and earthquake insurance.
Having nowhere to go in the morning is just as tough on him. “Working makes me feel young,” Steve said. He was told that seniority meant he’d be among the first asked back, but he’s yet to receive a call. Other jobs he’d go for aren’t hiring, he said, as downtown “suffers a little longer.”
Still, Steve sits on the stoop, smiling. He and his sister acknowledge that they’re among the luckier ones who even have savings, and Steve’s wife has still been able to work from home.
“I know a woman who had to move out of the city,” Lynn said before maneuvering her wheelchair to her unit below. “I think if you didn’t own your house, you’re shit out of luck.”
And in March, Francisco Coot’s luck ran out. The 45-year-old discovered his belongings strewn outside of the apartment he was subletting, and the locks changed. The undocumented immigrant from Yucatán, Mexico, was let go from both his jobs at a restaurant in Chinatown and an ice cream shop downtown, so he had nothing to pay up. Because he was subletting from someone out of the country, he didn’t fight the landlord. Instead, he packed up and is crashing with two friends.
“It’s really stressful not having work, and a lot of my friends are in the same situation,” Coot said in Spanish while standing in line at a San Francisco Marin Food Bank pantry. “But I have hope. Maybe now the city is reopening, it will get better?” He shrugged. Coot collected his food box, and headed back to his temporary home.