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SF works to fix up housing for homeless

by Seth Hemmelgarn

The Civic Center Hotel has been cleaned up and is expected to offer Navigation Center services beginning this week. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The Civic Center Hotel has been cleaned up and is expected to offer Navigation Center services beginning this week. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

When homeless people in San Francisco move off the streets, they often go into one of the city's single-room occupancy hotels or homeless shelters.

Many times, they find conditions that are similar to the outside environment, but work is being done to change that in many places.

For years, the Civic Center Hotel, at 20 12th Street, was a prime example of the problems.

Department of Building Inspection data show that, according to some residents, there were maggots, mice, and cockroaches in the hotel. Elevators were often broken, there was garbage in the halls, and one person reported that people were sleeping in the fifth floor bathroom.

Another resident wrote, "There are too many crazy crackheads outside and people getting beat up and robbed."

Since then, the Civic Center â€" which the city will soon use as a Navigation Center to help homeless people get into permanent housing â€" has been cleaned up.

On a recent afternoon, David Jones, 65, a resident since 1993, sat outside the hotel's Market Street side smoking a cigarette.

"Now, it's very good," said Jones, a straight man who pays $300 a month for his room. "It's very clean. There's no trouble, and no noise. It's all 100 percent" better than it was.

Sam Dodge, director of Mayor Ed Lee's Office of Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, said the agency has been "really aggressively moving to improve the SRO conditions."

The Civic Center, which had been sued over its poor conditions, is now leased directly from U.A. Local 38 Trust Fund, which owns the hotel.

"We made a bunch of improvements to it, and we're getting ready to open it up for navigation services on June 20," Dodge said in a recent interview.

The nonprofit Community Housing Partnership, which took over operations of the Civic Center in November 2015, has a contract of about $2 million with the city to run the hotel. That includes the lease and providing property management and social services.

"We cleared all the notice of violations" from the Department of Building Inspection, including the broken elevators and other problems, said Gail Gilman, Community Housing Partnership's CEO.

Even more work is on the way, as the Civic Center will eventually be torn down.

Community Housing Partnership is part of the master development team that's redeveloping the site.

"We'll be constructing a brand new hotel with 100 units," Gilman said. It will be another two to three years until the Civic Center's demolished.

The current hotel's permanent residents will have the right to move into the new building, she said.

The Civic Center won't be torn down until the new building's been constructed.

Gilman said that the Navigation Center at the current site could house up to 90 clients "at any point in time." The Civic Center's 50 permanent residents will have access to the same services available to clients of the Navigation Center.

The new hotel will feature 100 studio apartments, including 50 spots for formerly homeless people, but there won't be a Navigation Center.

 

Shelters

It's not clear if San Francisco's homeless shelters are seeing the same progress as the SROs.

Data from the city's Shelter Monitoring Committee, which includes members appointed by the mayor and others, show that from July 2015 through May 2016, a total of 112 complaints involving 21 sites were filed.

Multiple Service Center South's shelter and drop-in center had more complaints than any other facilities, with a combined 32 during the 11-month period, according to the committee's data. The shelter and drop-in are run by St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco.

In a complaint submitted in May, one person alleged that an employee of the massive shelter, which is at 525 Fifth Street, "has been harassing him and trying to deny him services, even though the complainant states that he hasn't broken any rules." The committee says that case is pending.

Lessy Benedith, MSC's program director, didn't respond to an interview request.

In an email, Mwangi Mukami, who chairs the Shelter Monitoring Committee, responded to an interview request by saying the panel's bylaws "restricts our engagement with the media without a full committee vote." The topic is now expected to be addressed at the panel's July 20 meeting.

Most of the complaints submitted last month about the city's shelters related to the way staff treated clients, although one person said there were bedbugs.

Jazzie's Place, 1050 South Van Ness, a shelter designed specifically for LGBTs, opened a year ago this month after several years of delays. There were three complaints about the shelter in the July through May period, according to the Shelter Monitoring Committee's data.

Among other problems, residents complained that two standards had not been met: "Treat clients equally, with respect and dignity," and "Provide shelter services in an environment that is free and safe of physical violence."

Two of the complaints were closed "due to no contact from the client," while in the third case, "Committee staff determined that Jazzie's Place was in compliance" with the standards, according to the panel's records.

In response to emailed questions, Wendy Phillips, executive director of Dolores Street Community Service, which operates Jazzie's Place and adjacent shelters, indicated there have been issues.

"A huge challenge has been having an LGBTQI shelter next to two predominantly hetero-male shelters," Phillips said. "We have addressed through educating people that at the core of who we all are, we are more similar than different and we are all human, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or anything else that could be used to separate us."

Dolores Street also has "a zero tolerance policy for hate, bullying, discrimination," and similar behavior, she said.

Jazzie's Place has room for 24 people. Phillips said, "In general, it is full most nights."

"We don't have a breakdown of the demographics," she said. "There are people of all ages in all sections. ... For the purposes of maintaining sections so that folks feel comfortable with others that are similar to them, we have eight beds in the male section, eight in the female section, and eight beds in the gender non-conforming section."

 

Kimberly Cruz. Photo: Seth Hemmelgarn

More work coming

Kimberly Cruz, 27, a transgender woman who often sleeps in a box in the Mission district, said she's been homeless for over a year.

Cruz said one hindrance to getting into shelters can be long lines, but she hasn't been too worried about conditions in the facilities.

"Honestly, sometimes I just want to sleep," she said. "... I try not to complain about what they look like." When she's inside a shelter, "I'm grateful to have a roof over my head at the moment."

That sentiment was echoed by Brian Basinger, co-founder of San Francisco's Q Foundation, which provides housing and other services.

In an email exchange with the Bay Area Reporter , Basinger urged caution when writing about conditions in SROs.

"I've been around long enough to see when well meaning people bring expectations based in privilege (the same ones I had when I was new) and helicopter into the SRO situation," he said.

Basinger recalled testifying at a Board of Supervisors hearing where someone "made a stigmatizing remark about living in SROs." He said he "defended people for whom getting into an SRO was a success. ... When my people get into a place, we high five. It doesn't matter what it is."

Dodge, the HOPE director, said his agency is working on taking over three more hotels this year: The National, 1139 Market Street; The Crown, 528 Valencia Street; and The Winton, 445 O'Farrell Street. The three hotels have about 250 units altogether.

The Crown and National are set to open August 1 and the Winton should open November 1.

The city's putting in about $3.5 million while the federal government's investing approximately $3 million. The funds will be used for the leases, as well as 24-hour desk clerks, on-site social workers, and other program costs.

"It's pretty complex to bring on more buildings," Dodge said, "but we can do it. We need more supportive housing exits for our system."

The rooms are meant to go to people who are currently in places including the Navigation Center and shelters.

Work will include upgrading bathrooms and electrical systems in the Crown and National, while the Winton will get some "major" rehab, which will include upgrading the elevators, he said. All three will be getting community kitchens.

As far as solving homelessness, Dodge said, "We can demonstrate successes in housing all different kinds of people, whether families or the chronically homeless or people experiencing mental health or substance abuse, but in the absence of real federal investment in ending homelessness, we're only going to be able to get so far, so we can certainly do much better than we can see right now."

He said the city's new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing will be helpful, but the city getting to "a place we can all be proud of" will require federal and state agencies "stepping up in ways that they haven't done in a few decades."

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