Ramesh Patel, Community Leader Who Helped Redirect S.F. Homeless Policy, Dies at 57

by Randy Shaw on August 25, 2010

Ramesh Patel, a leader in San Francisco’s Indian-American community who played a key role in reshaping city homeless policy, died this week at 57. Told in 1987 that he had inoperable cancer and only three months to live, Patel defied the experts for 23 years – and only in the last weeks did it become clear that his latest comeback would fail. In 1989, Patel organized Indian hotel operators to end the city’s notorious “hotline hotel” program and to instead implement homeless advocates’ “modified payment” strategy. In 1994, Patel organized his community to side with tenants and homeless activists against the Jordan Administration’s effort to kill the Modified Payment Program. Patel later convinced Indian-American operators to lease their SRO’s to nonprofit groups, which made possible the city’s vaunted “Housing First” policy and Mayor Newsom’s Care Not Cash program. Ramesh Patel never wanted publicity for his efforts, but with his passing the story of his enormous contribution to San Francisco must be told.

I met Natwarbhai (“Ramesh”) Dahyabhai Patel in 1982, after he purchased a very rundown and nearly vacant Eddy Street hotel. This began a 28-year relationship that brought enormous benefits to my organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), and to San Francisco.

Replacing the Hotline

When Mayor Art Agnos took office in 1988, he wanted to end the city’s notorious “hotline hotel” system – where homeless people were offered just one night in an SRO. But Agnos could not end a system that was housing 1000 homeless persons each night without having a replacement.

In 1988, the Coalition on Homelessness was still a coalition of groups rather than an independent nonprofit. The Coalition’s proposals included a “modified payment” housing program (MPP) that would encourage landlords to provide below-market rents by greatly increasing the likelihood that tenants living on welfare would pay rent.

Under the MPP, the person’s welfare check is payable to the person and the agency. The agency would withhold the rent and pay the tenant the balance. The program was entirely voluntary.

I had pushed for a MPP because Ramesh told me that hotel operators would use it to house tenants. Contrary to widespread belief, many Indian-American SRO operators hated the hotline and only used it because the city had made it the only game in town.

Agnos’ new DHS chief, Julia Lopez, loved the idea of the MPP but felt the city could not run it. She asked THC to do it, which meant either expanding from a law office to operating homeless programs or giving up a strategy for killing a hotline system that was destroying residential hotels.

So THC ran the MPP, and Ramesh’s Jefferson Hotel was among our first three hotels (the others were the Folsom and Columbia.) He gave tenants a rate of only $260.00 a month, which soon filled the building.

Ramesh quickly convinced over thirty other SRO operators to join our MPP program. Thanks to Ramesh’s salesmanship, by January 1990 the MPP had totally replaced the hotline – with General Assistance recipients now able to secure permanent rather than simply temporary housing.

Backing MPP Against Mayor Jordan

In 1994, voters narrowly approved a highly deceptive ballot measure promoted by Mayor Frank Jordan that would revive the hotline by forcing welfare recipients into substandard hotels. Called the “Direct Rent Program,” it mandated rent deduction from recipients’ checks and would have forced the poor into privately run SRO’s lacking habitability standards or adequate management.

While a broad coalition of groups sued to stop the measure’s implementation, the Jordan Administration confronted a deeper problem: nearly all of the Indian-American hotel operators refused to participate. This meant that the program lacked the housing units it needed to operate. The potential housing supply was unavailable because Ramesh had convened a large group of hotel operators and told them that THC had helped them greatly with the MPP, and that they needed to stay loyal to THC and not to Mayor Jordan.

Ramesh Patel always valued loyalty. And despite the Jordan Administration offering all kinds of financial incentives for hotel operators to join the Direct Rent Program, nearly all refused.

Ramesh Patel and the Indian-American hotel community stood in almost complete unison with the community, homeless activists and SRO tenants against the city’s own Mayor. And when Mayor Willie Brown killed the Direct Rent Program on his first full day on the job (keeping a campaign promise), Indian hotel owner resistance had prevented its implementation.

Promoting Hotel Leasing

Rising rents in the late 1990’s made it nearly impossible for General Assistance recipients to obtain housing, so a new strategy was needed. This became hotel leasing, and in September 1999 Ramesh’s Jefferson Hotel was the second hotel leased by THC through DHS’s new hotel leasing program.

At the time, few hotel owners wanted to consider leasing their properties for 10-20 years to a nonprofit group. But Ramesh again became the great salesman for a vital city housing strategy.

Thanks to Ramesh, THC secured leases from a number of extremely high quality SRO’s that had never previously participated in city homeless programs. These include the Royan, Union, Graystone and Elk – all of whose owners contacted me because “Ramesh told me to give you a call.”

In some cases assisted by Raman B. Patel, whose father was the Uptown Tenderloin’s first Indian-American hotel owner, Ramesh attended meetings and made repeated phone calls urging owners to lease their hotels. And I will never forget Royan owner Barry Bhakta telling me, “well, I don’t know if this is the right thing to do but Ramesh says I must do it so I will.”

That’s what we call leadership. And Ramesh provided that leadership after a decade in which the Patel name in San Francisco became synonymous with “slumlord,” a period when a sitting member of the Board of Supervisors felt comfortable saying to me that “the city really needs to do something about those Hindus.”

A Man of Honor

Ramesh and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic have had business dealings for 22 years. While we have the standard signed documents and enforceable agreements, Ramesh used to always say “I know we don’t need agreements. For us, it’s about trust.”

Here’s an example. We leased the Jefferson Hotel at Mayor Brown’s request in a very short time frame, and later learned that eleven rooms we could not get into were badly damaged. Some owners might say that the lease made this our problem; instead, Ramesh said that “of course” he would bear the cost of bringing the rooms up to our standards.

Ramesh always believed in “working things out.” And when I look at THC’s relationships with nearly all of our Indian-American lessors, it’s clear that Ramesh’s insistence that they could trust THC has prevailed.

Ramesh never sought publicity for his efforts, not wanting to get caught up in the racism against hotel operators named “Patel” which still prevails in San Francisco. But his death is a reminder of his community’s critical role in San Francisco’s great success in housing homeless single adults, an achievement for which Ramesh Patel deserves great credit.

Ramesh and I said our goodbyes, and he left in peace. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Susila (Sue) and to his entire family.

Randy Shaw is Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron.

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