One Way to Get People Off the Streets: Buy Hotels

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With offices in San Francisco booming and ample opportunity for overtime, Mr. Sanchez said that at his peak he could max out at $22 an hour, or a little over $60 adjusted for inflation. He also wasn’t worried about rent. He stayed in his family’s public housing unit until his mid-20s and had a cheap after-hours life that consisted of floating around the neighborhood and hanging out with friends near the 24th Street BART stop. “I was always in the streets,” he said.

When he moved out of his family’s apartment, an event that was set off by his brother’s killing in a drug deal, it began what he described as a run of falling wages, broken relationships and unstable housing arrangements that took him around and out of the Bay Area and ended with him pitching a tent in front of a church a block away.

“I started getting into partying and stuff,” he said. “Starting cocaine and smoking weed.”

Mr. Sanchez says he has had only two formal leases, each for a couple of months, and along the way he cycled through enough wives and girlfriends that he cannot precisely say how many of their names he’s had tattooed and covered up.

“Bad call,” he said. “I’ve got a heart for people.”

Bouncing from rooms to floors and couches, Mr. Sanchez said, he was functionally homeless even if he wasn’t on the streets. At one point he moved to Sacramento, where rent is cheaper, but he had shifted to landscaping and painting work after his back injury, and that paid as little as $10 an hour.

In early 2020, making about $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits and a little extra with hourly yard and gutter-cleaning jobs, he was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s hotel room. One day he ran into a woman he knew, and she offered to let him sleep in her tent next to an Episcopal church a block away from his childhood apartment. He said yes, and soon after got his own tent.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this is how it is? It’s not too bad,’” he said.

Homelessness as Gregory Sanchez experienced it is a relatively new phenomenon. Academics started documenting people sleeping in parks and bus stations in the early 1980s. Then, as now, researchers ascribed it to a mix of falling wages, rising housing costs and a fraying safety net combined with addiction and untreated mental illness.

Another factor, which has been mostly lost to history, was the loss of single-room-occupancy hotels, which served as a crucial source of last-resort housing. That’s what prompted tenants to push back against the Somerton’s conversion. In 1984, when Mr. Lembi asked the city for permission to renovate the Somerton from a residential to a tourist hotel, it was challenged by Randy Shaw, a longtime housing advocate who founded the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in 1980 and still runs it today. He eventually negotiated a settlement that allowed the two dozen long-term residents to stay in what would become the Hotel Diva.

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