Buses Provide Homeless Sanitation, Dignity
By now you’ve probably seen one of those big blue buses in front of Most Holy Redeemer at 100 Diamond St. on Wednesday afternoons, or you’ve seen them around Civic Center, some locations in the Tenderloin or the Mission. And you’ve probably had a look inside from coverage by one of our local TV stations.
If you don’t know what these big blue ladies (or gentlemen) are doing, let us explain. Starting three weeks ago, in conjunction with the parish’s famed Wednesday Night Suppers, the Lava Mae bus, a San Francisco-based mobile shower and sanitation service for the homeless, will be parked outside the church—for now the only location in the Castro—from 2 until 5 p.m.
These old Muni buses have been turned into mobile shower stalls, delivering, as the sign in front of each bus infers, dignity one shower at a time. In formal language, these are used Muni buses “repurposed” into showers and toilets on wheels to give homeless people the opportunity to get clean and regain a sense of empowerment and humanity. In short, Lava Mae believes that with hygiene comes dignity and with dignity, opportunity.
San Francisco resident Doniece Sandoval founded Lava Mae, a nonprofit based on the idea that old, unused city buses could be retrofitted with fully functioning showers for homeless people to use. Designed in consultation with the people they would serve, each bus holds two individual shower pods, one of which is accessible for people with disabilities.
In San Francisco it was important to have a mobile model to ensure reaching people scattered throughout the city and to assure that the service not be vulnerable to increasing rents and potential evictions. The nonprofit works closely with local government and in partnership with a range of nonprofits serving the homeless from drop-in centers and health clinics to re-entry programs.
Community reaction throughout the city has been highly enthusiastic. Volunteers are encouraged to email email@example.com. In addition, gifts of soap and toiletries and other items are welcome, but donors should first check with Michael or other staff to see what is most needed in the moment. And in case you’ve been wondering, Lava Mae is a play on the Spanish word for “wash me!”
The city initially donated four decommissioned municipal buses to Lava Mae and allowed the nonprofit to tap into city fire hydrants. The cost of retrofitting the shower pods came to $75,000 per bus. Each bus has two shower stalls completewith sinks and toilets as well as towels, soap and other toiletries. Included is space for personal belongings as well. Initial costs were funded by foundations, private donations and by founder Doniece Sandoval and her husband.
Photo: Bill Sywak
Wiener Aims To Curb Upper Market Collision Problems
With Upper Market Street between Castro and Octavia streets grappling with some of the highest collision rates in the city, District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener has embarked on a plan to shore up the area’s traffic and pedestrian safety.
Whether the problem is due to confusing traffic laws, the rapid change of vehicle speed along Market Street or other various moving parts, Wiener’s goal is to reduce accidents and create a “Transit-First” city.
The effort is part of the Zero Vision Initiative, a multi-city plan to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2024. The initiative was started in Sweden and has already seen widespread success there and in Norway and is also being taken up by New York, Chicago, and other international cities.
While this may seem as much of an uphill battle as the city’s “no homeless by the Superbowl,” the goal has a practical aim: to reduce not only fatalities and injuries but also cars on the road and stimulate the demand for public transportation.
Pedestrian safety is a large part of this, and a major part of Wiener’s focus as supervisor, which is why many local improvements have already focused on widening sidewalks. One place where this is already visible is on the main drag of Castro Street between 18th and Market streets.
Wiener’s initiative includes creating more visible crosswalks, which work to beautify and personalize each individual neighborhood. These are already visible in two main retail zones in District 8: the rainbow crosswalks in the Castro and the red brick crosswalks in Noe Valley.
Other initiatives led by Supervisor Wiener included an amendment to the city’s fire code, which was strict in allowing for wider streets, often curtailing plans for sidewalk size increases.
As the city moves forward with plans, Wiener and his team will continue to push further legislation to make these improvements possible, working with the community to find and address citywide problem areas with the ultimate goal of San Francisco will become not only a Zero Vision city, but also a Transit First city by 2024.
Vacancies draw neighborhood concern
Walking around the Castro, it’s hard to miss the numerous vacant storefronts that line the streets. Residents are preoccupied with how to fill these retail spaces with businesses that reflect the image of the neighborhood, as well as how to hold on to some of the beloved businesses that are on the verge of getting kicked out.
“Just looking around the Castro, we have the Orbit Room and Chilango’s sitting empty,” Daniel Bergerac, President of the Castro Merchants, explained. “The Korean Bistro is supposed to become a sandwich shop, the Thai restaurant above 440 Castro is, or at least was, for sale. Dante’s Table and Nirvana are both empty and for lease. And, of course, the Patio Cafe/Hamburger Mary’s remains a ghostship.”
In addition to the already vacant storefronts, recent events have raised concern for commercial leases in the area being denied or not renewed. The closing of Chilango’s, a popular Mexican restaurant on Church and Market that was in business for years, is one example. A letter was displayed in the window of the restaurant explaining that a new landlord took over the building but declined to renew the restaurant’s long-term lease. The owners were given the option of a month to month lease for nearly double what they had previously been paying.
Another Mexican restaurant that served the neighborhood for 23 years, Zapata’s, was set to close as of last month, but has now been granted a one-year lease extension by property owner Les Natali. Zapata’s owner, Jorge Perez, told the Bay Area Reporter he felt it had been evident that Natali wanted the restaurant to vacate its space since he bought the building in 2008. Natali, who owns a mini-empire composed of several properties in the Castro, is not the most popular man in the Castro. Apart from being accused of racial profiling of customers at one of his bar’s (Badlands), he currently has vacant properties at 531 and 541 Castro Street and 4144 18th Street, and he has left the former Patio Cafe location empty for over a decade.
But Natali isn’t the only reason that small business owners in the neighborhood are nervous. According to Bergerac, retail was much different thirty years ago. Long gone are the days of only being able to get a specific item at a certain store that only exists in the Castro. Technology has changed the way in which people shop.
“Thirty years ago, gay people [in the Castro] had shops that pertained to a specific clientele,” he said. “Today it’s much different, much harder.”
Bergerac explained that today people ask themselves: “Do I want to get in my car and drive across town to see if maybe they have what I’m looking for, or do I just want to jump on my phone or my computer and order the exact thing I want on Amazon?”
The recent Castro and Upper Market Retail Strategy Report considered all the different factors contributing to the vacancies in the area. The yearlong initiative, led by the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District along with the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association and Castro Merchants, aimed to fill new ground floor retail in a manner that enables the commercial corridor to thrive, while at the same time preserving its unique character and draw as a tourist destination. It also strived to ensure a high quality of life for area residents. The findings confirmed that while the Castro has the most pedestrian traffic in the city after Union Square, the commercial vacancy rate remains higher than normal.
According to Executive Director Andrea Aiello, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District is concerned about the vacancy rate in the district and is committed to implementing retail strategy recommendations.
“Research on the best next steps for us to take speaks to the need to hire a dedicated person to work closely with the community, the property owners, local merchants and the brokers to not only fill vacancies one property at a time, but to also work with all of these entities to create clusters of businesses which have a similar customer base and then help develop collaborative programs between these merchants,” Aiello said. “The Castro CBD is looking for funding to create such a position. In the meantime we are have reached out to owners of long term vacancies to inquire about the possibility of pop-ups and we are open to facilitating discussions with property owners around filling vacancies with pop-ups, art and other activities. The CBD is also using the research from the Retail Strategy Report to guide our decisions around land use.”
Danny Yadegar, Project Coordinator for the Retail Strategy Report, agreed with Aiello. He noted one such pop-up or temporary use of a vacant space to keep an eye out for in the near future. The Myriad, a marketplace that promises to be “much more than mom’s market,” is set to open at 2175 Market St. The business model is explicitly designed to help small businesses thrive in the increasingly difficult-to-navigate landscape of high rent prices and labor costs. Accordingly, the Myriad will allow tenants lease options from six months to two years in varying sizes, with rent ranging from $1,000 to $2,500. This initiative is a new way for small business owners to become future tenants in one of the vacant storefronts in the Castro.
Openhouse offers model for LGBT elders
Architectural rendering of 55 Laguna St, where more than 400 units, 110 reserved for LGBT seniors, are under construction.
An increasing number of LGBT seniors living in San Francisco and the Castro face a sense of being isolated from their peers and need help getting involved in the community. LGBT seniors also face the difficulty in finding affordable housing. Only one agency, Openhouse, is dedicated to helping LGBT seniors in many ways including developing economic security and these services are free.
Two other centers that reach out to the local LGBT seniors are similar in many ways. The Castro Senior Center provides services for seniors and caregivers and disabled adults. About 40 percent of the Center’s budget goes for the LGBT educational and recreational programs, while 5 percent of the 30th Street Senior Center is used for services for LGBT seniors. Both of these agencies provide referrals to social services, a congregate lunch and home-delivered meals.
“Lack of access to services and people with physical disabilities makes it even harder for them,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener. “Many seniors are low-income and they are unlikely to have an adult child take care of them. The percentage of people in the AIDS and HIV crisis affected the number of people that could help.”
All of these agencies are looking for additional funds so they can maintain their current programs and develop new ones. About half of the funding for these programs comes from the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services plus federal funds.
“Last year the Department of Aging and Adult Services spent almost $7 million to fund 26 senior centers in San Francisco,” said Tom Nolan, a spokesman for the DOA.
Openhouse is dedicated to the LGBT senior population
There are approximately 20,000 LGBT seniors age 60 and older living in San Francisco. Openhouse was founded in San Francisco in 1998 to break down the barriers preventing LGBT seniors from accessing housing, health benefits, long-term care and other support services. It’s open to all members of the community who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and are 55 and older.
Temporarily located on the third floor of the LGBT Community Center, Openhouse served more than 2,000 LGBT seniors last year. Openhouse provides information and referral, case management, emotional support, friendly visitor services and robust community engagement activities including language and culture classes, support groups, outings, lunch socials, and much more to ensure that older LGBT adults get the compassionate care and support they need to age in community.
Through the Caring Connections Program, Openhouse matches a screened and trained volunteer with an older LGBT community member to provide ongoing companionship and emotional support.
Also, Openhouse offers a huge number of workshops to choose from, including housing assistance workshops, health and wellness seminars. They also review benefits for Medicare and Medi-Cal eligibility.
Castro Senior Center offers many services for older LGBT adults
Patrick Larkin, Director of Castro Senior Center, said “LGBT seniors face discrimination regardless of their neighborhood and generally have lower incomes and are more isolated than the larger population.”
About 40 percent of their clients are LGBT seniors. An LGBT group gathers monthly for social time and to discuss topics selected by participants. Guest speakers have included local commissioners and a member of the Board of Supervisors. They also offer lunches, film programs, trips, special presentations and parties.
The majority of clients are seniors who have some type of physical disability. There are specialized programs for individuals with developmental disabilities such as mental limitations, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Their goal is to avoid premature institutionalization.
One of the seniors, Mary Rowe, 92, said, “I’ve been driving to the Center for more than a decade because I like the atmosphere. I’m a volunteer and I like socializing with the others, and lunch is good.”
Open Hand provides their free hot lunches.
30th Street Senior Center’s LGBT Connection
The Center began in 1979 when a small group of Nicaraguan seniors asked for a room in the 30th Street building to start a senior club. Now San Francisco’s largest multipurpose Senior Center, it served more than 5,000 seniors last year.
”While we don’t have a program specifically for LGBT seniors,” said Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center, “we do have a policy of inclusiveness and we are partners with Openhouse to offer a weekly arts group and monthly LGBT-themed film and the Castro Senior Center for the “Open Artists” program, movies, and the Always Active program taught by an instructor from San Francisco City College.
The day care center offers 50 activities from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in both English and Spanish. Case managers speak Spanish, Cantonese and Russian and about 60 percent of the participants are bilingual in Spanish. Hot lunches are served in a large dining room. Hot meals prepared by On Lok are also delivered in-home.
Artists, Activists Lead Edgy Wild SF Tours
J. Jo leading a Wild SF Tour. Tours are artist and activist-led and often include performance.
Wild SF Tours is no ordinary tour company. It is artist and activist-led, culturally informed, fun, fascinating, always interactive and sometimes even musical. Of course no San Francisco tour operation would be complete without a tour of the Castro, which is offered on its own or paired with a tour of the Mission. Whether you have visitors in town for the holidays or just want to learn more about the city you live in, Wild SF Tours is a superb way to spend an afternoon or even an entire day. Jordon Jo, also known as J. Jo, co-founded Wild SF Tours with his friend Wes Leslie, aka Wild Wes, in 2012.
How are your tours different from other San Francisco tours? They’re a lot more interactive, right?
Certainly, yeah. Not only do we talk the talk but we walk the walk. We are queer activists, sex-positive activists, educators ourselves. We live here. We are part of the underbelly of the city and a part of the mainstream too. We invite it all. Our main goal as people, activists and artists is to keep pushing the legacy of that. That’s shaped us and inspired us so we’re just a continuation of that. A lot of tour guides are just talking about history; we’re a part of the new generation, so that’s what really separates us as a team. What do we talk about on the tours? We’re a lot more edgy than most tours. We’ll talk about things that are comical, like big penis shaped macaroons at Hot Cookie. We’ll talk about trans rights, people of color, how that intersects with the whole movement and how it has not been sufficiently represented in the movement. We get real and a lot of times our guides tear up—the people on the tours tear up. It’s different every time. It’s moving. It’s fluid. It’s a performance and a real experience.
You’ve been something of a local celebrity in the Castro too.
Yeah, I was a little naked and naughty at one point but it was for a good cause. It was called Project Nunway [put on by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence]. That was about a year ago. I was in my mother’s costume and we were paired with Sister Jezebel—shout out: hey Sister Jezebel! I think it was Sister Roma who donned my mother and Jezebel as the winners of Project Nunway, the best costume and performance last year at Project Nunway 2014. That was my mom and that was me. I was the naked guy.
You were completely naked?
Is your Castro tour offered weekly?
Yeah. At the moment we’re going into slow season so we’re only offering it three times a week now.
You offer a tour called the Radical SF Route that combines the Castro and the Mission. Can the two be combined at all three weekly tours?
Not weekends, but weekdays yes, so two of the three.
When the Mission is included, without giving too much away, what do you introduce about the Mission’s culture?
The Mission is, to us, the most crucial tour we give that really touches us. We’re talking about history but how it is intersecting [with] a movement that is happening today, and we’re walking through a cultural and social battlefield while we’re doing the tour, so it’s heavy. It’s just civil rights in your face, stop to stop to stop. Over the years we’ve tailored the branding of the tour so that you know, yes, we’re going to be talking about a lot of people’s rights here: women’s rights, immigrant rights, Latino rights, artist rights, lesbian rights, housing issues, tech colonization. We’re talking about it all. Like the gritty air of the Mission, the tour follows suit and it’s uncompromising, but we sing songs and we make jokes and we connect people where no one’s demonized, not even if you’re a tech worker. There are a lot of tech workers that come on the tour and we want them to feel like they’re in a safe place. That’s the spirit of the city—to include everybody in order to transform, to make a place for people to feel safe to be there.
What you just said was really moving and that’s exactly what it’s all about. Aside from the Castro and the Mission you do lots of tours around this city, all with unique takes on those particular neighborhoods. You go to Chinatown. What are some of the other ones?
The Haight and the Barbary Coast and downtown. Union Square is an incredibly important place in U.S. history. It was kind of just this big mountain of sand turned into the second major plaza of the city. It was there that the St. Francis [Hotel] was built, putting San Francisco on the map, it being a destination for global celebrities and presidents. It was there that Starr King, a very famous preacher, made a speech. It’s why we call it Union Square—during the Civil War days convincing California to go pro-union as opposed to separating. Abraham Lincoln himself announced that it was that speech in Union Square that saved the United States. Without California we would have been in a very difficult position as a country to reconcile what was going on. We touch on a lot of different areas of the downtown that have been transformed into commerce, hustle-bustle, tourism, but we talk about what really happened back in the founding days, that’s another take on that too. I forgot to mention one other tour. We just came out with the spooky Night Tour. We’re talking about murder, suicide in Union Square and the Tenderloin area. It gets spooky.
You’re wearing your guitar. Are musical instruments part of most of the tours or some of the tours?
Some of the tours. Unfortunately, we can’t ask our guides to be everything. First and foremost they’ve gotta be passionate about people, create humor and engender feelings and imagination from their words—that’s the most important thing. It’s really hard to find somebody who can enjoy themselves around anybody no matter where they’re from or who they are, what their creed is. For them to be professional, to be active in social movements, and to play music and to be an artist in general is maybe a little too much to ask. What tours are musical? The Castro, the Mission, and the Haight.
How long have Wild SF Tours been going on?
I started it with my best friend three years ago. His name is Wild Wes. We were both in college. We had been traveling the world—he was in Spain, I was in Mexico for a whole year. When we came back we said those people are here in this city. Let’s talk to them and show them what our city’s about and show them how we live. We didn’t want to work nine-to-fives; we hated that stuff because we’re multi-faceted human beings. I was studying astrophysics and jazz, and he studied Spanish, marketing, and creative writing, so we come from way different backgrounds. We just wanted to be able to be working outside, eating well, meeting new people, inspiring them, and using our powers for good.
Photo Courtesy of Jordon Jo
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