The Truth Behind the SF Chronicle’s Shameful “Investigation” of SRO Homeless Housing

THC’s Pierre Hotel

Setting the Record Straight on SF’s Supportive Housing Program

San Francisco’s SRO Supportive Housing Program has taken thousands of homeless people off the streets for over two decades. The program dramatically improved SRO living conditions for the city’s most vulnerable, exceeded all expectations, and is a national model.

Yet the SF Chronicle wrongly offered a very different view in its April 26, 2022 story. The article said the Program is “disastrous” and has “squandered millions.” These conclusions are false. I write this article to set the record straight.

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) is the city’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing. We have led efforts to improve SRO hotel conditions for over forty years. As head of THC I take great pride in what our workers accomplish on behalf of an often traumatized population on a day-to-day basis.

The only point the Chronicle story got right was noting the urgent need for the upcoming city budget to significantly raise salaries for nonprofit workers in supportive housing. But the story summary on the paper’s website ignores the urgent need for wage equity—it focuses instead on the claimed “disastrous” conditions in the Program’s hotels.

Here are some key facts the Chronicle ignored.

Every THC Hotel is Dramatically Better than Before Supportive Housing

Living conditions and management significantly improve once THC takes over the hotel as permanent supportive housing. The Chronicle’s claim that “chaos” permeates our hotels is a defamatory lie against the hard working 24-hour desk clerks and other staff who do a remarkable job maintaining stability in the buildings.

I began working with SRO tenants to improve living conditions in their hotels in 1980. Unlike the reporters, I know what SRO conditions were like before permanent supportive housing. It is beyond a night and day improvement.

After over a decade of seeing city officials ignoring habitability violations in SROs I felt so strongly about the city’s failure to enforce housing codes in SROs that I authored a November 1994 ballot measure to create new housing code enforcement procedures. The current owner of the SF Chronicle editorialized against the measure. During the 1994 campaign its reporters described THC as a “special interest group.” Our “special interest” was improving housing code enforcement. The voters passed the measure, and by 1995 San Francisco went from a national scandal around housing code enforcement to the national leader in effective enforcement.

Over a quarter century later, our city’s most vulnerable tenants continue to reap the benefits of the 1994 ballot measure the SF Chronicle’s current owners opposed.

Misrepresenting its Poster Tenant

The Chronicle starts its April 26 story by describing a tenant whose “rodent infestation became so severe that she pitched a tent inside her room to keep the mice away.” The reporters did not tell readers—despite my giving them this information—that this tenant denies the regular extermination service provided in all THC hotels.

The tenant that kicked off the Chronicle story also refused room inspections by THC staff. We conduct such inspections with required notice as part of best practices to ensure hotel safety. The tenant also assaulted a fellow tenant and got into serious verbal altercations with fellow residents. In her first month in the hotel she had multiple interactions with the SFPD.

This is the tenant whose story frames the Chronicle’s attack on SRO living conditions.

THC is responsible for protecting over 100 tenants in this tenant’s building. When a tenant refuses extermination service it makes it a lot harder to control mice and roach infestation throughout the building. Talk to any property management company about the impact of tenants denying extermination service and they will tell you the same. Health Department inspectors became extremely frustrated with the tenant whose story the Chronicle reporters used to paint a picture of tenants having to pitch a tent in their own room.

The Chronicle learned about this tenant because THC was evicting her for public nuisance. I told the reporters about her history but these facts were ignored. Evicting tenants is an absolute last resort for THC but such actions occur when necessary to protect the health and safety of other residents. The Chronicle dishonestly persisted in framing their entire story around a tenant who resisted all offers of assistance and continued her public nuisance activities.

As for the overall problem of mice and roaches in SRO hotels—-I haven’t heard the Chronicle suggest methods of control that THC isn’t using. We work closely with the Health Department and implement their advice. The Chronicle wrongly implies that our hard-working janitors, maintenance workers and other property management staff care less about eliminating mice and roaches than two Chronicle reporters. The property management staff their story criticizes are so dedicated that when the pandemic blew up they came to work in high-Covid risk hotels every day despite life-threatening public health conditions.

DBI and DPH Records Contradict Claims of “Dilapidated” Hotels

The Chronicle bases its claim of “dilapidated” and “troubled” housing on the number of Notices of Violation (NOV) issued for THC hotels. But that misrepresents what NOV’s mean. The mere issuance does not support the conclusion of a “dilapidated” building. A Notice of Violation informs the landlord that a problem exists that must be fixed. NOVs do not assume the landlord got any prior notice of the defect. That’s why no penalty issues unless the NOV is not corrected within the allotted time.

Prior to our 1994 ballot measure, landlords had no fixed time deadline to correct NOVs. Their failure to correct NOV’s had no financial consequences. The new DBI leadership in 1995 changed that. Now, bad landlords who do not respond to NOVs pay fines that steadily escalate. The city’s most troubled properties get Orders of Abatement with liens placed on their property

It is THC’s policy to correct NOV’s within the required time. This policy is virtually always implemented (some repairs take longer than the prescribed period in which case DBI grants extensions). I encourage readers who question THC’s compliance record to go to the DBI tracking link and check on each of our hotels. Our properties are listed on our website.

THC Has a 94% Tenant Retention Rate

If our hotels were as bad as the Chronicle says then you would expect to see a revolving door of tenants.

Yet for the past seven years THC’s one-year retention rate is 94%. 94% of tenants who move in either remain in their homes for the full year or transition to other permanent housing (many of our tenants are on Section 8 waiting lists).

When the then DHS decided to lauch its SRO housing program, the assumption was that we’d be doing great if we could get 70% of tenants to stay in the hotels for a year. The unhoused population is now far more traumatized, yet THC continues to main an extremely high retention rate.

The Chronicle article doesn’t cite THC’s high retention rate. It doesn’t fit their description of a “disastrous” program. So the story omits this important fact.

SRO Supportive Housing Tenants Build Community

Following the Chronicle story we reached out to a few tenants. Here’s what they said:

Being homeless was a very scary time for me, but once I got to the Hartland, that all changed. I met some of the kindest people while living there. I still keep in touch with a few of them. I also believe that while being there I impacted people’s lives as well. I really tried to bring a positive attitude into people’s live’s on a daily basis. I enjoyed sitting in the TV room watching sports with some of the tenants.”—Kathy Vaughn, former THC tenant now in Section 8 housing

“After 15 months at The Sanctuary through social security I was diagnosed as permanently disabled. I got into The Union Hotel which is managed by Tenderloin Housing Clinic. After a couple months there I was approached by the case manager and asked if I would consider being the Tenant Organizer. I said yes. They sent me to Central City SRO Collaborative where for the first time in 3 years I felt like someone really cared. My community organizer Rio Scharf is responsible for me being alive along with Clifford and Pratibha. I would not be here today without these 3 people. They were the collaborative and still are except Rio. They gave me a reason to stick it out. They taught me I had a voice and it needed to be heard. They taught me the true meaning of community. The blatant lies being told break my heart. These people who give so much of their life and time to helping people like myself.”—Felicia Smith, Union Hotel and THC Board member

You’d never know from the Chronicle story how supportive housing tenants build community in their hotels and the Tenderloin neighborhood. Also omitted is how THC staff work to instill a sense of community among the often very lonely residents of our hotels. THC desk clerks make it a priority to greet residents when they enter and leave the building. THC staff consciously works to make tenants feel like the hotel is their home. These front-line workers make a huge difference in people’s lives. Their accounts would have been included in an honest investigative story.

Because I am thankful for a second chance at life, I am grateful for the opportunity to get housing at a difficult time in society.  I was unhoused when I was admitted to Zuckerberg SF General for an infection resulting from a near fatal hit and run bicycle accident.  In March 2020 I was given an SRO at the Vincent.  It was not perfect but I accepted it because it was the continuation of my road to recovery.  Today, I am the Building Tenant Coordinator for The Vincent.  My job?  Breath new life into what was once a community.  I’m also on several committees that serve the Tenderloin district.  I guess this is currently my way of saying “thank you” to those who were there for me when I didn’t realize what was truly at stake.” Greggory Johnson, Vincent Hotel

An honest investigation into supportive housing would have included interviews with some of the hundreds of tenants who feel that getting into supportive housing positively transformed their lives. I have included a few examples and could share hundreds more. Yet the Chronicle could not find any tenants who strongly support permanent supportive housing.

How did they pick which tenants to interview? They got the records of cases where THC has litigated with tenants and chose that unrepresentative sampling while ignoring anyone with positive words. One tenant quoted never lived in THC housing. Another started a fire under their neighbor’s door. Another attacked a fellow tenant with a taser. A tenant was quoted saying that our case managers don’t help tenants—yet our records show they in fact provided multiple levels of assistance to this tenant.

Desk clerks would have rebutted claims that they allow “chaos.” Janitors would have described the challenges they face keeping common spaces and common bathrooms clean with a challenging tenant population. These accounts would have offered an honest account of the life in supportive housing hotels.

During my initial phone conversation with Trisha Thadani I encouraged her to visit THC’s Pierre Hotel or other of our high-quality legacy hotels to get a better sense of how successful our supportive housing program has been. She said she was eager to visit these properties; she never did.

“A Quarter Died While in the Program”  

The Chronicle cites a study of 515 supportive housing tenants (not just with THC) who died while in the program. The story wrongly claims that this statistic to shows the program is not only a “disaster” but a life threatening one.

That’s just not true.

I wish my dear friend Gail Seagraves were alive to challenge the Chronicle on this claim. Gail tragically died of cancer last September and got a great obituary in the Chronicle. Gail became a community leader after moving into a THC hotel. She felt our supportive housing program transformed her life. Anyone who knew Gail knows how angry she would be to see her death being used to attack supportive housing.

The largest demographic in THC hotels are tenants aged 61-70. The second largest is age 51-60. The truth the Chronicle ignored is that many THC tenants live in our buildings until they die. They see their housing as a permanent home, which is what supportive housing is designed to do. That so many of our tenants live into their 60’s and 70’s despite having acute medical issues after years living on the street sends the opposite message pushed by the Chronicle.

Does Gail Seagraves’ death while living in THC’s Bristol Hotel mean that the city’s supportive housing program is a “disaster”? The Chronicle says it does.

Overdoses in SRO Hotels

Although overdoses among the unhoused doubled from 2020-21, the Chronicle sought to blame supportive housing for increases in SRO overdoses. I got into a major rift with the reporters by insisting that allowing open air drug markets near our hotels has contributed to the overdose crisis; they said they wanted to only address what THC does in its hotels. When I refused to allow them to shift the issue away from the easy access to drug dealers, reporter Trisha Thadani suggested I had no sympathy for those dying of drug overdoses in our hotels.

That’s when I realized what this story would really be about. DISH, THC and other supportive housing providers have strategies to help reduce overdoses. It’s insulting to have to say this but of course I care about overdoses. So does THC’s entire staff.

As Beyond Chron readers know, I’ve worked hard to get drug dealers off the sidewalks near SRO hotels.  I stand by my position that THC can best reduce overdoses in our hotels by stopping easy access to drug purchases. Tom Wolf, Steve Adami, THC’s Richard Beal and other leaders in the recovery movement believe the same. When this issue was raised on KQED Forum last week callers with public health backgrounds blamed easy access to deadly drugs for the overdose increase. 

Supportive Housing is Cost-Effective

The Chronicle’s claim that San Francisco’s supportive housing program “squandered millions” lacks any factual basis. The truth is that it saves the city millions of dollars to house people in SROs than in shelters or jail, the most common alternative. The city’s SRO housing program is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing homelessness among single adults.

There has been widespread criticism of the high per unit cost of building affordable housing for the unhoused (due to a project costing over $800,000 a unit). It appears that whatever strategy cities use to house the unhoused is criticized as too expensive—-which helps explain why securing funding to end homelessness has been so difficult.

56% Rise in Homelessness Since 2016

I will end with the Chronicle’s biggest and most destructive misrepresentation: that there is a connection between the creation of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) in 2016 and the 56% increase in the number of homeless people in the city since that time.

Homelessness has increased in virtually every high housing cost city across the nation during this period. The Trump years saw virtually no increase in federal spending for homelessness. Yet the Chronicle story claims that San Francisco’s rise is due to a lack of accountability and performance at HSH (the new Point in Time report released today found a 15% decrease in San Francisco’s unsheltered homelessness from 2019-2022).

This goes to the heart of the story’s dishonesty. I spent 3 hours with the reporters trying to put their story into the larger perspective of the federal government’s four-decade abandonment of affordable housing. I tried to connect them to the underlying issue that supportive housing tries to address: the ongoing trauma of poverty, racism, and a broken social safety net that has left millions of Americans in a very troubled and unhoused state.

The reporters weren’t interested in this.

Instead of telling the truth—-which is that permanent supportive housing in SRO’s has been a great success and would even be better with additional funding—- it provided a FOX News version of “the truth.” A story that Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate and Joe Manchin will use to justify killing increased federal funding in Build Back Better for the permanent supportive housing urban American desperately needs.

To my recollection the SF Chronicle (outside of covering the media events for hotel openings) has never done a single story on the positives of a THC supportive housing hotel. Over twenty years of hard dedicated work by front-line staff and by THC’s entire SRO workforce has been ignored. Now THC staff has to hear from friends and family that their hard work under difficult conditions has been derided as a “disaster” by the Chronicle.

That’s the shameful impact of the paper’s phony “investigation” into supportive housing

Readers of the SF Chronicle deserved better. And reporters with other local media should stop repeating the false conclusions of the Chronicle story.

I am more thankful than ever that in 2004 we named our website BeyondChron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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The Truth Behind the SF Chronicle’s Shameful “Investigation” of SRO Homeless Housing