The Vice Hotel

One of the largest city-funded Care Not Cash hotels was allegedly run as a home for extortion, drug dealing, and other vices

Mendoza "put me right in the middle of what they call the drug corridor, and I don't do drugs, and I was afraid," one woman said. "I was coerced, intimidated; they called me a narc. It was a horrible situation."

Mendoza said he actually reduced drug dealing in the hotel, and that he did not receive kickbacks or any other sort of benefit from dealing.

It's not a shocking idea that someone in a position of authority over vulnerable people might be accused of abusing power. But it is peculiar that a city-funded charity with an $18 million annual budget might allow such a situation to persist.

Mission Hotel hallway
Jake Poehls
Mission Hotel hallway
Concertina wire, installed to prevent dealers and other intruders, was cut long ago and left that way.
Jake Poehls
Concertina wire, installed to prevent dealers and other intruders, was cut long ago and left that way.

In his "setting the record straight" column last week, Shaw noted that his agency runs criminal background checks on employees. He also suggested that anything I might write should be considered unfair because I've criticized him in the past, citing a 2005 column in which I referred to him as a "skid row kingpin."

In spending three weeks talking with former THC employees and with social service providers who work with the homeless, I'll grant Shaw this: I've come to doubt that he's a cynical person. He's widely admired for having organized San Francisco's downtown poor during the 1970s. And nobody I spoke to believes that Shaw approved of what was going at his hotel.

But Shaw's organization seems to be set up in such a way that these supposed problems are widely believed to have been allowed to fester for too long. Some of his former allies believe he may not be effectively managing what has grown into a large and complex organization.

The Care Not Cash program has helped grow THC from a 20-employee charity to a multipronged organization employing some 200 people. Meanwhile, a THC structure has evolved that may keep managers such as Mendoza from being held accountable.

THC runs in-house tenant "advocacy" organizations that tenants and workers with other nonprofits believe may actually prevent problems from coming to light. Of THC's total $18 million 2005 budget spent on the housing program, the agency spent $500,000 per year running city-funded tenant-advocacy groups such as the Central City SRO Collaborative, the Mission SRO Collaborative, and its Code Enforcement Program, in which SRO employees help tenants complain about building defects. As stand-alone advocates, these groups provide a valuable counterbalance to downtown slumlords with a reputation for cheating and even abusing tenants.

However, as a branch of THC, which is the city's largest private low-income hotel landlord, such programs create a troubling situation where the organization is able to handle complaints in-house. Tenants groused to me about speaking with SRO Collaborative lawyers, only to find that they'd been identified to a building manager as a complainer. The widespread view among THC tenants is that this system of in-house advocacy means that complaints against THC can be swept under the rug.

Critics say Shaw has positioned himself as a left-wing "progressive" leader, allying himself with leading politicians such as Supervisor Chris Daly. At the same time, Shaw's organization provides a valuable political service to Gavin Newsom by carrying out the lion's share of the mayor's Care Not Cash program. News about possible problems in THC hotels can reflect badly on these politicians.

[[Readers' Note: Paragraph Deleted]]

[[Correction Note: In the Oct. 10 story "The Vice Hotel," we incorrectly stated that the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) spent $1 million of its $18 million budget during 2005 on lobbying expenses. The error was due to a misreading of the nonprofit's IRS filings. Those filings actually state that the clinic spent no money on lobbying expenses that year. Columnist Matt Smith took THC's $1 million "lobbying nontaxable amount" entry to mean that the nonprofit had spent that much money on lobbying. In fact, this line refers to the maximum amount the IRS allows a charity to spend on lobbying without paying tax. SF Weekly regrets the error.]]

The tragedy of the Mission Hotel is that well-meaning San Franciscans pay a fortune so that this type of "supportive housing" might provide a refuge from the violence, drug dealing, and despair of the streets. Indeed, Shaw himself characterizes the hotel this way in his recent Beyond Chron item:

"Smith views the housing of over 2,000 formerly homeless single adults in decent, safe, and affordable housing as a failure. Smith seems completely unrestricted by facts and objective reality, and like our President, feels more comfortable inventing his own world."

Residents, however, say the Mission Hotel is one of the more dangerous places they've been.

Emmett Oliver, for instance, keeps his eye on the straight and narrow while attempting to suppress his anger about what he sees as a treacherous environment at the Mission Hotel.

"I'm not dealing, and I'm going to make damned sure you're not dealing, too," Oliver said during our first meeting, by way of explaining his theory of nuisance abatement. "It's the city that pays for this place. So we shouldn't have to live this way."

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