San Francisco

Once Gritty SF Hotel Now Helping Aid Homeless

Among San Francisco's many single-room occupancy hotels, SROs as they're known, the Civic Center Hotel at 12th and Market streets was among its most notorious.

It was known as a haven for violence and drugs — long-time residents recalled stabbings and even recalled a time when people would climb into the building via the adjacent travel lodge. It got so bad San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the former managers over the squalid conditions.

"It was one of the worst hotels around," said Cash, a current resident of the hotel who didn't want to reveal his last name. "This used to be the crank hotel. This used to be, all the speed used to come through here."

Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
San Francisco's Civic Center Hotel near 12th and Market Streets is being renovated as a "navigation" center to help homeless transition into housing.

Still, the hotel was viewed as a step-up from the streets for many of the city's homeless denizens. It was at the very least, a roof. But now the hotel has undergone a transformation turning it into a valuable resource in the city's efforts to provide a leg-up for homeless trying to transition into stable lives.

The city contracted with the Community Housing Partnership to take over management of the hotel. CHP group changed janitorial services and upgraded bathrooms. But the most profound change was to remodel old downstairs storage rooms to accommodate new on-site centers offering 24-7 social services, meals and laundry to the roughly 100 residents who will occupy the building.

"The folks who have been living on the streets, predictably in encampments, need a period where they really stabilize," said Gail Gilman, CHP's executive director.

Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
Cash, a resident of the Civic Center Hotel stands in front of the building. He described it as once one of the "worst hotels around."

The services offered in the hotel will mirror those available in the city's nearby "navigation center," an all-in-one service center that combines temporary housing with on-site social services. City leaders have touted the navigation program as an effective and popular tool toward transitioning people off the streets.

Nicole Johnson, who estimates she's been homeless for 25 years, was looking forward to the new version of the Civic Center Hotel.

"They'll keep a roof over my head, they're putting in a kitchen," Johnson said. "I think it'll help get a lot more people off the streets."

Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
San Francisco's Civic Center Hotel was considered one of the city's most notorious SRO Hotels. It's now being remade as a "navigation" service center to help homeless people transition off the streets.

The city said the new facility will create more spaces for people trying to get into the city's one current navigation center. The waits have frustrated homeless who are trying to transition off the streets.

"Every time I try to get in it's booked," said Ryan Palmer, a homeless man living in an encampment near Mission Bay.

Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
A worker repaints the awning of the Civic Center Hotel as part of it's remodeling as a "navigation" service center.

Though the hotel's future will be an improvement over its past, it will be a somewhat temporary one. The building is slated for demolition in a couple years as part of a swath of new development in the pipeline west from Van Ness Avenue. But CHP plans to replace the hotel with a new building that will house 100 formerly-homeless. The current residents of the Civic Center Hotel will relocate to the new building once it's built.

The city is pushing to open six more navigation centers to help people seeking an avenue off the streets. Cash, the current Civic Center Hotel resident gave a conditional thumbs-up to the new role for the formerly-dodgy building.

"That might be ok if they can direct us to where we can get services," Cash said, "instead of just putting us up in a hotel until we get ready to go back on the streets."

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