To residents of San Francisco’s Sixth District, the deplorable conditions of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels are no longer a great shock. In the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and South of Market neighborhoods, where most of the approximately 70 SROs are located, these city-run buildings have been terrible for as long as most can remember. And they’re getting worse.
The horrors of SROs were put on display to the public in a recent San Francisco Chronicle feature. The story tells of people living in buildings with collapsing ceilings, toxic mold, vermin, noxious odors, constant noise, broken appliances, and unchecked violence. It also notes that at least 166 people fatally overdosed in these hotels in 2020 and 2021. This official number, however, is suspicious for being so low. San Francisco’s medical examiner reported at least 1,300 overdose deaths citywide in the last two years, most commonly for illicit fentanyl combined with other drugs.
How can the places that the city has deemed appropriate for the economically distressed be so bad? It’s not because of a lack of funds. San Francisco has an eye-popping $1.1 billion homeless budget, much of it spent on such supportive housing.
We can lay part of the blame for the conditions on tenants who make life miserable for others—breaking into nearby apartments, threatening innocent people, or consuming drugs in common areas. But if tenants have demonstrated that they are incapable of being good neighbors, then the officials who placed them there are culpable.
“There needs to be a better vetting process,” says 25-year-old Darren Mark Stallcup, who until recently lived in an SRO. “The city was moving everyone in; people who were sketchy, violent. They were fentanyl addicts, just out of jail, or in gangs. People were breaking my door down. I would wake up having to throw punches.”
According to Stallcup, long-time tenants, many of them seniors, bear the brunt of the mayhem. “Most are Asian immigrants, and the noise scares the elders,” he says. “They would barricade themselves in. I never got a firearm, but I was thinking about it.”
In fact, many of the people placed in city-run housing are considered “high-need tenants.” Neither SROs nor supportive-housing units are the correct settings for them (or the other tenants who suffer from their proximity). They need professional assistance but don’t receive any because the city hasn’t invested in it.
This is Housing First policy in action. The idea behind it is as simple as it is misguided: Put people who were living outside or who are at risk of becoming homeless inside four walls. Then, voilà, you’ve solved the problem of homelessness. It’s not true, of course. More people arrive in San Francisco every day, most seeking the city’s cheap narcotics and easygoing attitude toward usage. They end up on the street until they can score subsidized housing.
Stuffing thousands of people who should be recovering in hospitals, mental-health facilities, and drug-treatment centers into free or low-cost apartments has been disastrous. The places in which they are housed are ruined; people get hurt, and some die. Neighborhoods fall into disorder.
The dilapidated state of SROs is only a symptom of the disease. Housing isn’t a cure. Unless cities address the underlying problem of untreated mental illness and addiction, every building set aside for the homeless under the Housing First approach will deteriorate, and the people desperately needing help won’t get it.
A long-term SRO resident who wishes to remain anonymous notes the lack of oversight and accountability. “The Departments of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and Public Health are in violation of housing rights and human rights,” she says. “Supportive housing? There is no support. DPH could give a rat’s ass about health. If you’re a woman, your life will be a living hell. No one cares. High functioning people regress. Some want to stay sober, but they can’t. Eventually they pick up a pipe again because almost everyone around them is using.”
The city’s solution: more of the same, but waste even more money. Instead of addressing the rotting SRO buildings, the administration is on a real-estate buying spree. With an influx of funding from Proposition C—a measure that taxed the city’s most profitable businesses with the intention of fixing homelessness—it is purchasing pristine new buildings in which to house needy people.
The apartments that Mayor London Breed has been proudly showing off, with gleaming kitchens, sparkling bathrooms, and clean bedrooms, are all destined for ruin. Soon these units will be in the same uninhabitable state as all the others. This is exactly what happened when the city gave people “shelter-in-place” rooms in the Mark Hopkins and similar luxury hotels during the height of the pandemic. The destruction was almost immediate. Fixtures were ripped from bathrooms, blood and feces stained the rugs, mattresses were set on fire, and people died of overdoses, often alone.
The push to add permanent supportive-housing units in districts with few, if any, such structures will only worsen matters. Assurances that these units are for homeless families and will include mental-health services are unfounded. As for the communities, they will suffer the same fate as those in District 6. Drug dealers will arrive to serve the new residents. Criminal activity will intensify. Building occupants with addiction issues will buy what they want, take the substances to their rooms, and use. Some will overdose and die. Meantime, the people who don’t use drugs or who are trying to stay sober will be in a dangerous environment. Abstinence isn’t valued. Harm-reduction activists make sure residents always have access to free needles, pipes, and foil, but never promote free recovery assistance such as Narcotics Anonymous.
Giving permanent residences to people who have not demonstrated that they can handle such responsibility is wrong, says Stallcup, who finds it painful to recollect his time at an SRO. “They were shooting up in the shared bathroom,” he says. “They basically destroyed everything. I’ll never forget the smell. They need treatment, rehab, support, facilities designed for those things. We shouldn’t give out properties like this. It’s crazy. There has to be a bridge.”
Housing First has hurt, not helped, those who are in dire situations. Redoubling efforts in pursuit of this policy guarantees that the sick will get sicker, and the city’s light will continue to dim. Rather than railroad deeply troubled people into poorly managed apartments or blighted SROs, San Francisco should use its enormous budget to fund the integrated addiction treatment and psychiatric care it sorely lacks.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images