Giving Shelter

Housing the homeless in restored San Francisco hotels

Take one look at the airy lobby of San Francisco's Empress Hotel and you might mistake the place for a tourist haunt like so many others near Union Square. The newly renovated Empress, small but solid, sports exposed-brick walls, shiny hardwood floors, and a staircase with arts-and-crafts detailing. But don't try booking a room there on Expedia.com.

That's because all 90 rooms are reserved for formerly homeless people. The Empress is one of many hotels that San Francisco has recently fixed up as part of a new strategy to solve the city's notorious homeless problem. The program not only rehabilitates tenants, many of whom struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. It's also bringing back tired old single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs)—properties long derided by some as flophouses but valued by others as the essential and underappreciated bottom rung of the housing ladder.

Traditionally, San Francisco's homeless packed into night shelters and were expected to get clean and sober if they wished to advance into more stable housing. The city's new approach—backed by both President Bush and liberal Mayor Gavin Newsom—aims to make temporary shelters obsolete in favor of permanent housing with on-site support. And tenants don't necessarily have to kick their habits to get in.

San Francisco's large stock of residential hotels includes many built after the 1906 earthquake. The Empress, with its tiny rooms and shared baths, was typical of that time, when most U.S. cities had thriving SROs. The hotels were a flexible and cheap housing option for laborers, transients, and lots of permanent residents, too. But clusters of SROs, such as those along New York's Bowery, earned skid-row reputations for crime and filth. Cities across the country closed many of their SROs in the 1960s and '70s. Those structures that survived urban renewal schemes were usually done in by zoning restrictions or gentrification.

Because of tenant activism, San Francisco kept more SROs than other cities. Most are located in the grungy downtown district known as the Tenderloin. In 1991, a nonprofit called the Community Housing Partnership bought the Senator Hotel, a Jazz Age spot with a giant neon sign. The hotel, where Clark Gable once stayed, was given over to the homeless. The city's public health department later launched an SRO program of its own, in an effort to divert the homeless from costly hospital rooms. The Empress, for example, has a registered nurse's office just off the lobby.

But the SROs didn't really experience a comeback until Newsom was sworn in as mayor in 2004. Newsom pledged to get San Francisco's chronic homeless (the latest count numbers approximately 6,000) off the streets, essentially by using a portion of their monthly welfare checks for permanent housing. In this controversial program, the city uses the $14 million a year saved on welfare payments to lease SROs for periods of 10 to 20 years. In exchange for the leases, SRO owners are expected to renovate their properties inside and out. Not all of the hotels are as attractive as the Empress, which Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited on their U.S. tour last November. But these days in the Tenderloin, the nicest-looking building on the block is usually an SRO.

Housing activist Randy Shaw could not have hoped for more. Shaw runs an outfit called the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which leases and manages SROs through contracts with the city. "My dream," he says, "was to return all SROs to where they were in the 1940s, when you had working people staying there—truckers, blue-collar workers, retirees. The SROs are now being restored to their luster. They look great. These places are not flophouses."

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