Not Just Surviving Anymore

The day Tim* moved into The Empress Hotel was the first time he’d ever signed a lease. He was 49 years old. “You’d think I would have signed a lease by then,” he said, “but no. Not even for a car. I was,” he paused, “an adult but not an adult.”

The Empress hotel, in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, is one of many SROs earmarked for the homeless with integrated medical and social services. Rather than criminalize and further dispossess the city’s legion of social outsiders, City contractors like Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (DISH), which runs The Empress, focus on bringing citizens like Tim back into the fold. DISH is a project of the Tides Center and provides property management services for six supportive housing sites in San Francisco.

It isn’t always easy. Many of the tenants have, like Tim, lived hard. “I liked the street life–fast cars, guns, drugs and girls–the negative life,” Tim remembered. Originally from Miami, Tim moved to the city in 1987. He settled in the Tenderloin. His world shrunk around him.

“For twenty years, my life was this four or five blocks,” he said. “Addiction really condenses your life. Only time I went south of Market was to go to jail. Only time I left the city was to go to jail– San Bruno.” Relationships became a tangle of drugs, sex and violence, particularly with one girlfriend, who was also an addict.

“We didn’t really love each other. We fed off each other. We were codependent. She’d go out and work to fix me and I’d do that for her. We’d sleep wherever. We’d sleep with her Johns, in her Johns’ house. Or I’d give someone drugs to let us stay in the house.”

The Empress Hotel on the 100 block of Eddy Street stands tall as a bulwark of dignity and support amid the tough neighborhood of the Tenderloin.

He tried to turn things around when he came to The Empress. “I tried to stop using. It went back and forth. They never kicked me out,” he said.“I did seven months for sale and possession. Using crack on the street. They kept my room for me.”

The Empress hotel doesn’t evict tenants for drug use. It works on a harm reduction model that emerged in Holland as way to prevent Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS among drug injectors. Rather than criminalize drug users, harm reduction seeks to be inclusive and nonjudgmental in an effort to lower the cultural and institutional barriers to medical and social services.

Those services can be clinical. Tim received healthcare and support at San Francisco Department of Public Healths’ Housing and Urban Health Clinic (also property managed by DISH), where he was treated for crack and heroin addiction.  Onsite social services can also be simpler, more social, such as taking people bowling, or helping them with a whole new set of problems, like filing taxes.

“I’ve got six months sobriety right now,” Tim said.  “The case manager helped me a lot,” Tim said referring to the multiple case workers who have offices in The Empress. “They were off the hook. They supported me. Went to court with me. They got me glasses. I owed the IRS thirty-six grand. They got that down to two. We go on trips once a week, bowling and stuff. It was the first time someone actually cared about my sorry ass who wasn’t my mother.”

The straight life is an ongoing process for Tim. Sometimes things can seem grim. On that afternoon, Tim smiled placidly and raised his eyes to the ceiling, “I’m a lost soul.” But there are also moments of light.  Tim said the following day he was looking forward to a family reunion with his mother and, hopefully, his son. “Now I’m living,” he remarked. “Not just surviving.”

by Ryan Van Runkle

*Note: name has been changed to protect identity

Published on January 5, 2012