Navigating a Path From Homelessness to Housing in San Francisco

The old Henry Hotel has been converted into housing for the homeless. (Alyssa Schrag/ECS)

Renay Nonog does not have a bed. She decided to get a futon instead. Every morning she folds the futon into a couch and tucks away her blankets. This way visitors like me have somewhere to sit. Nonog likes guests, but she is not used to welcoming them into her home. This is the first one she has had in six years.

Nonog is living in a room at the old Henry Hotel at Sixth and Mission streets, one of the city’s toughest corners. The city has partnered with Episcopal Community Services to lease the run-down SRO and transform it into supportive housing for the homeless.

Renay Nonog says she feels blessed to have a home for the first time in six years.
Renay Nonog says she feels blessed to have a home for the first time in six years. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Many of the new residents, like Nonog, are coming from the city’s Navigation Center. The year-old shelter has different rules from most and promises a quick transition from the street to housing. The city is touting the shelter as an innovative approach to homelessness.

City officials are so confident about the Navigation Center that it’s in the process of opening a second one, along with 200 more supportive housing units for those transitioning out of these shelters. The idea is that this housing, like the old Henry Hotel, will be a next step for those leaving the shelters.

Nonog moved into her room about a month ago. The place is about 8 feet by 12 feet. The room is packed with her belongings — her collection of baseball hats, a stand with cosmetics, a television. There is a little sink, which is great, Nonog says, because she can hand-wash her clothes. She tells me not to look in her closet. It’s too messy.

Nonog says she has been homeless for six years. Near the end, a man she thought was her friend started abusing her. She had to get off the street, she says.

“I was determined because I was tired,” she says, “This foot says, ‘I’m tired.’ This one says, ‘Me, too.’ I’m sorry to get sentimental. It’s just a blessing. You know, that I did this, this far.”

Nonog went to the Navigation Center, which is located at an old public school site on Mission Street between 15th and 16th streets. Residents are expected to work with case managers to get signed up for benefits and housing.

Nonog followed the rules, she says, so after about a month the shelter staff sent her to the hotel. They gave her a little housewarming package before she left — a toaster oven, soup pot and some other kitchen supplies.

“I love to cook,” Nonog says.

Nonog also brought some things she had been carrying around with her for years. She has a sound system she found on the street. She tied it in plastic bags and let it sit for a week to kill any bugs that could be living inside it. Next to the sound system are all the CDs she’s picked up over the years. At the top of the stack are Beethoven and Al Green, two of her favorites.

The Navigation Center is designed for the chronically homeless, people who have been on the street for over a year. So far, 142 people have passed through the center into housing. That is a fraction of what the city estimates to be about 1,700 chronically homeless in San Francisco.

Sam Dodge is director of Mayor Ed Lee’s office of  Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement, or HOPE. Basically, he’s the city’s homelessness czar.

“We’re struggling, clearly, on the street with so much inflow, so many people becoming homeless,” he says.

Dodge says the Navigation Center is just a start, a way to show that the city can actually address homelessness. It pursued a lease of the Henry Hotel in part to provide a next step for those coming out of the shelter.

The Henry “is not the end for them,” Dodge says, “It’s just a vehicle that they can land in permanent housing and then work on for the rest of their lives for whatever goals they are pursuing.”

Dodge says there is no quick fix. The chronically homeless often do not have IDs, bank accounts or health care. They suffer from physical disabilities, mental illness or the trauma that comes with living on the street.

Loretta Olivencia runs the support services at The Henry Hotel
Loretta Olivencia runs support services at the Henry Hotel. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

The Henry Hotel is now operated by Episcopal Community Services, which provides on-site case managers to help out residents.

Loretta Olivencia runs all the support services at the Henry.  She says new tenants have lots of questions. Some are big ones like how to manage money, get health care or apply for a job. But sometimes residents just need to know where to buy furniture and food.

The Henry Hotel has not always been a place to go for answers. It has a dark history. There are bullet holes in the front facade. And the furniture in the rooms is still bolted to the floor. But the building has been made over — cleaned and repainted. For many here, like Phillip Torres, it is the best housing they have had in years.

When I ask Phillip Torres to introduce himself, he says he is “a 31-year old Puerto Rican male from San Francisco.” Torres says he has been homeless since he was 11.

Torres is showing me his room. It takes him a minute to open the door. He is not used to using a key.

“When I walked in here I was like: Wow, this is what I was looking for all my life.’”

Phillip Torres says he's been homeless since he was 11.
Phillip Torres says he’s been homeless since he was 11. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Torres is in a relationship with Renay Nonog, but they are staying in separate rooms, getting their own lives together. Torres says for years he has had no real family. He relied on a gang for support and often had to fend for himself.

“I’ve slept under cardboard,” Toress says, “I’ve went couch-hopping. I’ve went into abandoned homes. I’ve put a .357 to my head because I wasn’t loved.”

Torres tells me there were four times he prepared to shoot himself. We are sitting on his bed. On a side table there is a yellow notepad. It’s opened to the sketch of a flower, a tulip. Torres has written rap lyrics next to his drawing. He says the song is all about leaving gang life behind.

Torres says the hotel is only temporary. He wants to move with Nonog into their own place and have a normal life. Exactly how they will do that, he doesn’t know yet.

Torres says he is just trying to take it one step at a time.

Navigating a Path From Homelessness to Housing in San Francisco 29 June,2016Sam Harnett


Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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