SF Weekly Preparing New Attack on Housing Clinic

by Randy Shaw on October 1, 2007

The SF Weekly is not among my fans. Writer Matt Smith has described me as a “Skid Row feudal lord,” the “political ally of slumlords,” an “anti-development activist,” and a “skid-row kingpin.” He has described the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the organization I head that publishes Beyond Chron, as having “fought with great success to preserve fleabag hotels.” Smith even claims that THC “depends upon the continued existence of slums for its survival.” Now Smith is planning a major attack piece targeting THC’s management of San Francisco’s largest SRO, the 248-room Mission Hotel. The Mission has improved dramatically since coming under THC management in 1999, but this fact has never interested Smith. Instead, he is focusing on the activities of a former manager and desk clerk, neither of whom has worked at the Mission since July. THC has had remarkably few problems in its hotels over the years, and when we discovered problems at the Mission Hotel this year, we acted promptly to protect our tenants and employees. In fact, the only reason Smith knows about what occurred is because THC filed a restraining order to keep our former employee away from the hotel. We are extremely proud of our management of the Mission over the years. Rather than wait for Smith to misinform the public, we’re setting the record straight.

It is not easy managing SRO’s housing formerly homeless persons. Many of the tenants suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and even those who appear to have achieved longterm stability can suddenly and unexpectedly regress.

But when the San Francisco Department of Human Services (DHS) asked the THC in 1999 to start leasing and managing SROs, we accepted the challenge. We saw hotel leasing as a great opportunity to provide decent, safe and affordable housing for a single-adult population that had virtually no exits from homelessness.

At the time, the city was desperate for rooms, and asked us to try to lease the largest SRO’s available. In May 1999, we leased the 204- room Seneca Hotel on 6th Street, and in September took on the city’s largest SRO, the 248-unit Mission Hotel at 16th and South Van Ness.

The Mission Hotel is unusual in that its 248 rooms are on only three floors. It also had dormitory style bathrooms, so that a single tenant taking a shower left the entire area cloaked in steam. After we took over the Mission, my late good friend and New Mission News editor Victor Miller told me that the corner of 16th and South Van Ness was the neighborhood’s leading site of heroin traffic; so we faced challenges inside and outside the building.

Working with the hotel owner, we got the corner bar closed and the heroin traffic moved elsewhere. But managing the Mission was a challenge. The volume of people coming in and out of the building was huge, and we were housing many tenants placed directly in the hotel after previously living for months in a bare-bones shelter at Mission Rock.

But we somehow got through it, and after we hired Carlos Mendoza as general manager in February 2004, the Mission became a much calmer environment. We now had three fulltime case managers at the hotel, and had an application in with the Mayor’s Office of Housing to rebuild all of the hotel’s common bathrooms, add a women’s bathroom, and make other improvements.

In the fall of 2006, Carlos reported to us that he was going through some personal problems. THC was hiring as many as 44% of our hotel staff from the SRO/formerly homeless population, so this was not unusual (we were likely the leading nonprofit employer of single adults leaving welfare, and may still be).

Carlos’ personal issues soon triggered concerns about his relationship with a couple of the hotel’s tenants. An investigation was conducted, and for some time there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Carlos should be terminated. When that evidence emerged in July 2007, Carlos was removed from his post and his employment ended.

Department of Building Inspection records confirms that the Mission Hotel’s living conditions remained at a high level despite Carlos’ problems. In fact, conditions improved dramatically with the completion of the new bathrooms and the creation of rooms accessible to people with disabilities.

While investigating Carlos, we learned in July that a desk clerk at the Mission had connections with a local drug gang. This clerk was hired in 2006, and was subject to the exhaustive criminal background checks that we give all prospective employees. Our checks are nationwide, and go back seven years to uncover prior felonies for drugs or violence. This clerk passed these checks.

This clerk has not worked for THC since July. While we wish there had been some way for us to learn of his gang connection prior to that time, the police never claimed that the Mission Hotel was connected to any gang activities. And the clerk was not arrested for any crime while working for THC.

After Carlos was no longer a THC employee, he began hanging around the property. This raised concerns with our employees and some tenants, as they suspected they would be targeted as informants. THC filed a temporary restraining order against Carlos to prevent him from coming near the building, and the public court document was subsequently posted on the Internet and came to the attention of the SF Weekly’s Matt Smith.

Whereas Smith sees Carlos’ actions as reflecting poor THC management, we believe it shows our strength. There was only one tenant whose safety was jeopardized by the situation (the informant), and after we arranged with DHS for his relocation to a non-THC nonprofit hotel, he decided that we had treated him well and that he wanted to remain our tenant.

After visiting the Mission last week and talking to janitors, maintenance staff and case managers, the hotel has never looked better and morale is high. But other than the holiday season, the media is seldom interested in the day- to- day successes of janitors and desk clerks in making San Francisco’s housing programs work.

Matt Smith’s hostility toward what is being accomplished at the Mission and other leased hotels goes beyond myself and THC. Consider his comments made in 2007 about the hotel leasing program that became the vehicle for Care not Cash:

To carry out the mayor’s promise to give the indigent housing and other services – instead of cash handouts – Newsom has accelerated a program by which the city and Shaw’s organization arrange to lease flophouses from slumlords. This means renting to fewer impoverished tenants who used to come in off the street, and to more impoverished tenants from waiting lists. This hasn’t added significantly to the number of rooms available to the indigent. It has led to an inflation of prices for ordinary flophouse rooms, leaving many streetbound.

In other words, Smith views the housing of over 2000 formerly homeless single adults in decent, safe and affordable housing as a failure. Smith seems completely unrestricted by facts and objective reality, and like our President, feels more comfortable inventing his own world.

That may explain why Smith described the Matt Gonzalez 2003 mayoral campaign, perhaps the most idealistic and grassroots in history, as dominated by a group of “moneymen and special interests.” So I guess THC should be honored to be repeatedly attacked by Smith—-it confirms we are on the right track.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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