This week I walked with long-time San Franciscan La Tonya Jones and her dog, which closely resembles a spritely floor mop, from Taylor and Turk to Mission and 6th St. The seven-minute walk lasted a full half hour. Striding down the street, La Tonya stops to talk to virtually everyone about bad backs, problematic children, or old times. Her eyes sparkle mischievously as jovial insults fly thick and fast and her voice resonates to people 50 feet away, who whip around as we walk by.
La Tonya relates to people, and draws them in. She values the qualities-warmth, patience, generosity, energy-that make her excellent at her job as an organizer with the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSROC). She coordinates Sisters Rize!, a group for low-income women living in SRO’s. La Tonya lives in the non-profit run All Star Hotel. When I asked her about her experience coming to and living in an SRO, she describes her view of life here with nuance that is hard to find in any media’s coverage of San Francisco residents.
‘God has given you breath in your lungs’
In February, the SF Board of Supervisors honored La Tonya in a special session dedicated to Black History Month. Standing at the microphone, La Tonya was not afraid to steal the stage; she belted a deep-throated rendition of Amazing Grace. It’s telling that more than fifteen people went up to stand behind her, despite scowls from City Hall security.
District Six Supervisor Jane Kim, who nominated La Tonya for the Board of Supervisors’ award, told me:
“La Tonya is a shining example of what a community leader should be. This is a mother of four who simply does not give up, whether it is advocating for more access to healthy foods and meals, promoting empowerment, sisterhood and peer education among the women who reside in the SRO’s in the Tenderloin, or proving with her actions and spirit that no matter the challenges, you can make a positive difference in your community. La Tonya is a beautiful person inside and out. It’s a privilege to call her a friend.”
Even in the hardest times of her life, La Tonya kept herself going by helping others. When I asked her what she gets from helping others, she said, “A joy…it’s just a joy to be able to help somebody…. God has given you breath in your lungs, so… you give that back.”
La Tonya came to San Francisco from Oakland in the mid 1990’s because her mother passed away and she badly needed to escape the drugs and shootings she experienced there. “[After] I first came here, I was in shelters for six years and towards the end I got pregnant. I came out of the shelters and got a job in 1998 at Next Door as a cook-it’s a shelter where I had stayed.” That job enabled her to get a place on Treasure Island but after she injured her back at work she could no longer lift more than 50 pounds and lost her job-and couldn’t pay rent. “Me and my son were living on the streets. I gave my son’s father custody of him because I couldn’t work and care for him. I gave up my place on Treasure Island to [him] so my son could live there.”
Staying in shelters made La Tonya feel controlled, which she abhors. “Being in the shelter was like… jail to me. It was like you were a child.” La Tonya never suffers being pushed around, so this chafed. To cope, she told me, “I always kept myself busy. During the daytime I’d go to the library, go to the movies. … I used to go to One Stop every day to try to find work.” And in a prelude to the work she does today, La Tonya “used to volunteer at SF public schools.” She didn’t stop there. “I’d go cook for some of the seniors in senior apartments… [and] take them for walks.”
Drugs have not been part of La Tonya’s story for a long time. “I’ve been clean since I came to San Francisco,” she told me. She laughed. “All of us is not dope smokers, or whatever.”
I didn’t solicit the latter statement, which is telling. La Tonya is acutely aware of the judgment that media too often make about SRO residents. On one hand, La Tonya knows every illicit substance, behavior, and activity that goes on in hotels-and she’s detailed it for me. Still, she told me that viewing these SRO tenants as “failures” of the system misses the point. La Tonya treats individuals, on the streets or in SROs, as humans. Coming from a place of compassion and empathy allows her to continue giving back to other people who are struggling. And this “is a joy”.
‘He wasn’t doing nothing’
La Tonya got a room at the All Star Hotel, where she still lives, in 2006, In the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s 16 SRO hotels, men outnumber women almost four to one. La Tonya had to address this hurdle as well. When she moved in, she told me, “I was the only female there.” She went on, men would “approach you [and even] walk into the shower when you were all wet.” She shrugged. “It was home.” La Tonya takes ownership of wherever she calls home. “I started cooking meals with the case managers [for the residents] and… eventually [male tenants] respected me-they knew where I stood. And they still respect me.”
After a year and a half at the All Star, she said, she realized that the CCSROC tenant organizer in her building “wasn’t doing nothing.” Tenant organizers often voice the needs of tenants to management and agitate to improve conditions at the hotels, but she shivered a little when she recalled, “We needed pest control. [The tenant organizer] told me if he wasn’t doing a good job, I should take his job. So I did.”
La Tonya was a dedicated tenant organizer for her building but the CCSROC quickly recruited her to run the CCSROC’s women’s group, Sisters Rize!. “[My friend] invited me to the women’s group and I said ‘Naw, I don’t want to be around a lot of women-we always be bickering!'” But one Wednesday she went. “I’ve been coming ever since.” Pratibha Tekkey, Organizing Coordinator at the CCSROC told me that when they needed a new leader for the group, “She was a shoe-in.”
Last March, over 75 women gathered at a church in South of Market for the Sisters Rize! annual Women’s Convention. Laughter dominated the room. Throughout the day’s presentations and workshops, they had a space to pore through their biggest challenges, inspirations, and successes. La Tonya calls this event her most rewarding experience as an organizer.
This Convention drew women primarily from SRO hotels. She said, “I’ve never done nothing like that, never put any activity together. It was big! … It was inspirational to me that I could plan something and get a room full of women together without bickering, without stepping on each other’s toes.”
For La Tonya, the Convention celebrated this diverse group of women-many of whom faced severe medical, financial, substance abuse, and mental health challenges- for who they were. The convention cultivated a sense of empowerment, opening the possibility for them to believe they could change their own lives.
“It was a women’s day,” she said. “It was just great to see an auditorium full of women doing self-defense classes, learning about healthy food, learning about leadership. I wanted to treat them like somebody special, a mother, a sister.”
We have a little heart in there
Non-profit and some private SRO hotels often create communities. For better or for worse, people must live in close proximity. Some come to rely on the company of other tenants and sense of belonging as much as to the support services.
“When it comes down to it, we have a nice community…. Some people don’t have families, so we are one. There’s a senior in our hotel who has no one. His daughter came by one time in four years. I go to the pantry and pick up food for him, or go to the store for him.” She paused, looking thoughtful. “We have a little heart in there.” Even if residents have a (rare) opportunity to move to a more independent living situation, they can’t take this community with them.
La Tonya says that the All Star is home. Simultaneously, “It’s not home”. She dedicates herself to SRO residents but wishes for a place of her own. “It won’t be home until I can go to my door and won’t see someone sitting at a desk asking if you have visitors. The SRO is just a step.” To where?
In other words, La Tonya lives in the thick of the challenge that the San Francisco Chronicle series on SROs emphasized: how can SRO residents take a next step? La Tonya astutely points out, “At first Section Eight…was a way out of being homeless. They capped that step and now…people are still staying there,” so no one can get into Section Eight. Section Eight waiting lists are prohibitively long.
“We are all the small people, the middle people. There’s nowhere to go…. Where are the jobs at? There’s just a handful.” Case management can’t fix that, she says. She referred back to the Chronicle story, which emphasized the downside of THC SRO hotels’ 95% annual retention rate. “You’re talking about 5% who moves on? That’s the reason why-there’s a cap on everything.” Lack of step-up housing and job opportunity can devastate the SRO hotels residents who have the skills and motivation to seek employment. Still, the complicated truth is that fixing that problem wouldn’t do the trick.
For some, it’s a cycle
You got some people who want to do something with their lives and you got some people who don’t,” La Tonya said flatly. “[Ever] since I’ve been in San Francisco living in SRO hotels, they know who’s not going to make it. I know so many people who come into the hotel and they get so many write ups and they’re out. But they’re alcoholics and they’re hoarders. So if you’re alcoholic-you’re drunk and hollering in the hallway-and then you’re back out on the streets. And then you go back to General Assistance and it’s a cycle.” Those people, she tells me, “are the people you’re going to write about.”
She does not, however, accept the premise of the statement made in the Chronicle that SRO residents still “act as if they are homeless.” When I asked her about that statement, she said, “What do you mean by that? After they get their GA, they pay for food, hygiene” and by that point, they have next to no money. She herself goes out and busks. (I have run into La Tonya outside BART, where she was belting out blues songs to the delight of passersby.) She said, “Aggressive panhandlers, that’s one thing. But people who are just out to make a little extra money, what’s wrong with that? And if they want to come to my house, my house is clean. We aren’t all dirty.”
“Dirty” or not, I’ve never seen La Tonya treat other people on the street or in hotels with anything but a no-nonsense, loving attitude.
Like La Tonya, many residents help their building and themselves to the best of their abilities. And, folks like La Tonya work to get one another motivated and empowered to know their rights, and, hopefully, what they are capable of accomplishing. This is true of the women in Sister Rize!. La Tonya recently facilitated a documentary film-making class with the women through Intersection for the Arts, a community and arts development organization in South of Market. “…Making a film about my life…was healing, scary, and satisfying,” said one participant. (Contact Central City SRO Collaborative to learn about the documentary screening on August 28.)
Why do it?
Finally, I asked La Tonya how she keeps herself going.
“Where do I get my motivation?” She asked, with an isn’t-it-obvious look. “Because I don’t want to be a statistic. A lot of my friends who were on the streets with me, in shelters with me? I don’t see them no more. They’re dead. I’d say like every three months, somebody dies in the SRO.
My motivation: wake up in the morning and do something with my life. I get my motivation from the Collaborative, because I’m doing something with myself. It motivates me to go to other hotels and tell them my story. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And I thank God.”