The question of how to solve San Francisco’s “homelessness problem” is never-ending. Everyone agrees things are bad, but nobody can agree on a solution. And, it’s safe to say, many of those proposing solutions have not themselves experienced homelessness.
“I’ve got to keep telling my own story, or else they won’t pay attention,” said Rachel Wallace. “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”
Wallace is an eight-plus-year resident of Hotel Iroquois, a 74-unit single-room-occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin and the subject of a film screening and panel Wednesday night at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium.
Tenderloin-based organization Skywatchers, an arts and homeless advocacy group whose mission is to “build art through durational relationships,” crafted the 2019 documentary “Inside Hotel Iroquois” with the intention of bringing homeless voices into the discussion around housing.
Much of Wednesday’s audience was composed of formerly homeless people, current SRO tenants and the nonprofit workers who serve them.
Today, the Iroquois, built in 1913 at 835 O’Farrell St. to accommodate merchant marines, now houses 11 families and 63 individuals. Rooms typically measure 10-feet-by-10-feet and have no kitchens, little space for company and bathrooms that are often shared.
“Inside Hotel Iroquois” follows the lives of Wallace and several other long-term residents and their relationships with people from Skywatchers, whose mission is to “build art through durational relationships.”
Much of the film weaves residents’ favorite art forms with their stories through poetry, dance and singing.
While uplifting, Iroquois doesn’t sugarcoat reality in a Tenderloin SRO. Quarters are cramped, and residents speak to the drug use and violence that is part of everyday life.
In spite of the difficulty, or because of it, the building has many residents who look out for each other like family.
“One thing about the Iroquois,” a resident said in voiceover, “we all stick together.”
Although HomeRise is one of the more well-meaning organizations running SROs, management has its own problems.
“There’s people in here that physically attack people,” said one resident who grew up in Potrero Hill. She arrived at Iroquois while undergoing dialysis.
“But, if I speak up about something, I’m getting a lease violation, I’m getting a write-up.”
“There’s so many rules here. You get lease violations; how can you feel like you’re at home?” said Wallace. “We’ve experienced death after death in the building. One man was only found because of pest control. There’s a lack of checking on people.”
In a panel following the screening, Wallace said the documentary’s intention is to “empower wealthier people to see how we’re living. We’re all still equal. There just needs to be more support.”
Another panelist, UCSF professor and homeless advocate Margot Kushel, emphasized the need for other neighborhoods to embrace supportive housing.
“Because of opposition to affordable housing in the city, supportive housing is done in high concentrations. Many people struggling in one area is not conducive to people’s health.”
A major barrier, unsurprisingly, is money. Because case managers and workers for the companies that run SROs are underpaid, turnover is high, and the needs of residents are often met with indifference — and sometimes, outright hostility.
“When there’s a new person at the desk, I go out of my way to introduce myself so I don’t get a negative result from the prejudices against the demographics of people living in affordable housing,” said panelist Joel Yates, an Iroquois resident.
An SRO resident who struggles with severe depression stood up to question the panel about how housing organizations manage income. “There are five vacant units in my building currently. Why? Where does all the money go?”
Tramecia Garner, COO of Swords to Plowshares, a Tenderloin nonprofit started by Vietnam veterans for homeless veterans, agreed that the funding model for supportive housing is deeply flawed. “Many of our staff members are working multiple full-time jobs,” she said. ”They, too, are struggling.”
You can watch a shortened version of “Inside Hotel Iroquois” here.