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Behind the door of Room 213 at the Columbia Hotel, chaos waits. The back wall of the room is gone, blown away in the fire that burned through here 10 months ago. Plaster and wood and metal and glass lie in a pile at the foot of the bed, which inexplicably still has linens on it -- a pillow, a pillowcase, white sheets top and bottom, peeled up from a mattress that is soot-covered and soiled and sweat-marked and stained. Wind comes into the room through the blown-out wall, bringing with it the sickly sweet smell of excrement, fetid water, and trash from the air shaft that hums like a heart in the center of the hotel.
"It's very frustrating to me," Tom Mangold, who lives in the hotel, says.
We stand for a minute and look at the mess. Then we pick our way out through the debris onto the air-shaft floor, turn around, and look up.
In March 1995, the fire burned through nine rooms up two sides of the hotel, and now the long-empty chambers gape like dark eye sockets into the thick air-shaft air. Plastic sheeting meant to protect the ravaged rooms from rain hangs uselessly from single nails, protecting nothing. Wires run from room to room, barely insulated against the elements. In some places, the metal beams that hold the building up are rusting in plain sight, like bones revealed to a corrosive sky. And all around, in rooms just feet away from the wreckage, lights are on. From the bottom of the air shaft, I can hear the sound of televisions, of people talking. Of people living their lives, facing each other and the ruins of rooms where fire has come, long ago, and gone.
Telling a tale of privation isn't easy. Stop, you say, I've read this one before. But the story of the Columbia, a single room occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin at 411 O'Farrell, near Taylor, is not simply a story of building codes, long-unrepaired fire damage or not. It is a story of poverty in a city of wealth. An amazingly wide array of people live in the Columbia's 123 rooms, and taken together with the building itself, their lives paint a portrait of all of the problems that haunt San Francisco's efforts to help the homeless. The building is dirt-encrusted, fire-scarred, cockroach-infested. The tenants who live there -- many of whom have been homeless, or might be homeless, and who subsist on payments of public money far below poverty level -- are, in many cases, in dire need of mental health or substance abuse services, stranded in small rooms, warehoused, as it were, within the walls that shelter them. The city inspectors who examine the hotel's rooms and corridors for code violations are swamped by their workloads -- every month, they must inspect 35 hotels, some 1,500 rooms, twice. In some ways, they are being asked to stem a tide. The owners and managers are finding ways to scrape their profits out of the approximately $9 per room per day they receive in rent, and the hate and fear between them and their tenants contribute to the sense, palpable in the hotel hallways, that nothing good can happen here. Yet it remains: In San Francisco, the residential hotel is the single largest source of housing for those who would otherwise be on the streets, and, in the case of the Columbia, many of the people who live there are happy to call it home. This, then, is their world.
"You get $345 to start with," Tom Mangold is saying. He is standing in the doorway of his room at the Columbia, Room No. 606, and he's explaining the economies of General Assistance (GA), which is the $50 million San Francisco program that provides money to the very poor so that they do not have to live on the street. Mangold is a tall, wiry, intelligent man with bright blue eyes, white hair, and the directness of someone who has worked most of his life in the skilled trades.
"I think it's $278 for rent," he says. "Then $70 is left over and you get that in two payments."
Thirty-five dollars every two weeks. Not a huge amount of money to live on. But with the exception of Napa County, it's the most generous General Assistance program in California. That fact alone, in a cruel irony, brings homeless people to San Francisco. Money to help the homeless brings the homeless here, and so there's more money needed to help the homeless, and the cycle continues.
Tom Mangold is on GA. He's also on the city's Unreinforced Masonry Building board, sworn in at City Hall last April. The board position is unpaid, but it makes him a city official. He volunteers at Hospice by the Bay, on Sutter Street, a thrift store whose proceeds go to charity. He is on the board of the American Legion. He is a grandparent who raised his daughter on his own. He spent most of his adult life working in San Leandro and Hayward, as an elevator technician and then, later, as a self-employed repairman. He has lived at the Columbia for a little over a year. And around the hotel, he says, "I'm like a father figure." In part, that's because he is also the hotel ombudsman -- paid $115 a month in addition to GA to relate tenant complaints to the landlord. It's a job he takes seriously.