San Jose’s Most Vulnerable Formerly Unhoused Residents Fighting to Stay in Motel Rooms

Illuminated by emergency red and white lights of a fire truck and ambulance helping one of the people living at the SureStay Hotel by Best Western, a dozen other tenants—who are all either disabled, elderly or both—nervously gathered Wednesday to learn about their fate at the complex.

They were just a few of the 2,500 unhoused residents deemed most vulnerable in San Jose, who were moved into SureStay’s 76 rooms near Mineta San Jose International Airport in April 2020, after COVID-19 was found to be most cruel to older individuals and people with underlying medical conditions. The furnished rooms, complete with small kitchen appliances and onsite social services, have helped many not only avoid getting sick with the coronavirus, but also make strides in their own physical and mental health.

Supported by Abode Services, the building was part of Project Roomkey, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s experimental program that has sheltered more than 42,000 unhoused and vulnerable Californians in hotel rooms across the state. Tenants have lived at SureStay for free since it opened, having created a community of personalities and responsibilities, sharing needs like cars, groceries and information at the hotel—one of several in Santa Clara County housing folks.

However, Project Roomkey is now scheduled to end by Sept. 30.

The city of San Jose purchased the structure at 1448 North First St. for around $11 million, despite the termites gnawing through exposed beams seven feet of the ground floor, pipes frequently flooding rooms, and several palm trees chopped down onsite—leaving three-foot stumps sprinkled across on the turf lawn.

Now, city officials have decided to charge residents $627 a month—about 66% of many tenants’ average monthly income from Social Security Insurance—to continue residing there.

The city did not respond to requests for additional comment from San Jose Inside, but city spokesperson Jeff Scott told other local outlets the rate was determined by the state program through which the city purchased the motel, allowing rates up to 30% of the area median income, as opposed to 30% of a qualified tenants’ income. Scott said the city will “reconsider rent amounts within the next six months.”

Folks can remain housed at SureStay until Sept. 30, but many say hotel management has repeatedly pounded on residents’ doors with veiled threats and intimidation.

Prior to the city purchasing the building, Santa Clara County was in charge of operations, combining efforts of staff from the county's Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) and organizations like Abode.

It's uncertain who will be in charge of evicting residents, if need be.

Uncertainty, anxiety, anger, sadness are all palpable in the meantime, especially for folks hoping the city will listen to their pleas to stay.

Tenants gathered outside the SureStay Hotel to learn about the upcoming change from "Permanent Supportive Housing" to "Permanent Affordable Housing." Photo by Katie Lauer

Susan Flores couldn’t stop crying throughout a community meeting Wednesday, tears welling up every time the thought of getting rehoused—again—intruded her mind. She’s called SureStay home since January 2021.

“I don't want to go to a tiny home, because I’ve heard a lot of bad stuff,” Flores says, adding that she won’t go anywhere without her 11-year-old dog, Bubba. “I’m going to stand up and say I’m not doing it. They’re going to have to drag me by my hair.”

She’s been offered space by the county's OSH staff in a tiny home in East San Jose. It's not clear if she has a choice in the manner, but she's considering staying put at SureStay if she can, since this new housing option is worse—in every way.

Flores doesn’t drive and uses a walker because her legs don’t work too well. Sometimes standing is painful, so the idea of having to walk to the nearest store several miles away is a frightening one. She also deals with severe asthma, heart failure, COPD and diabetes, on top of discomfort in small spaces.

Susan Flores was formerly unhoused in San Jose, prior to securing a free room through Gov. Gavin Newsom's Project Roomkey. Photo by Katie Lauer

These are common concerns residents have with the other housing options they've been given. Whether tiny homes in East San Jose or other traditional shelters, those places often have little to no access to public transit, are miles away from resources like stores, are too small for walkers and wheelchairs and have fewer amenities than hotel rooms, such as personal bathrooms.

“[The city] is doing what’s convenient for them,” Flores says. “If it’s an inconvenience for me, they don’t care. I feel like they think they can just push me around.”

First brought to SureStay as one of the most fragile people living unhoused in the area, she’s now being evicted and leave a majority of her things—the only belongings left after the hotel’s pipes burst, her room flooded and hotel staff discarded items like a Nintendo game, nail salon kit, leashes, a dog bed and comforters—notably, all items of personality and comfort.

“I don’t ask a lot of questions, I usually go with the flow,” Flores says, “but now I know I can stand my ground because we’re all standing up together—there’s strength in numbers.”

Feeling utterly drained from everything, Flores returned to her room Wednesday evening to join Bubba and watch a movie to escape the stress.

Housing advocates learned only last week that the city was creating a brand new category of housing at SureStay—transitioning from “permanent supportive housing” to “permanent affordable housing”—that charges more than the standard 30% of tenants’ income, which is the rent for a room at places like Second Street Studios and Villas on the Park.

Raymond J. Ramsey, co-founder and president of the Second Street Tenant Association, argues that even unhoused people who can “afford” those higher rents are often left with little money for food and other basic necessities; he says the fear of returning to the streets may stretch residents beyond their means—likely setting themselves up for failure.

Advocate Shaunn Cartwright is flabbergasted and furious, saying information about the new rent rates was never shared in biweekly meetings with staff from the Housing Department, despite repeated requests for an explanation.

“These are not just tenants; they are a community that protects each other, that runs errands for each other, that makes sure each other has food, that looks out for each other’s mental health, that keeps track of each other’s medical issues and medications, that supports its trans members and that helps physically care for each other when people are sick,” Cartwright says, adding that the rate of unhoused seniors has increased by 20% in the last decade.

Because a majority of the residents are seniors, incomes are often limited through inabilities to work and minimal social security, on top of medical expenses. Cartwright says the change supports people who make more money, creating a case of the haves and have-nots within the unhoused community. The increase is also antithetical to the state of the building, compared to newly constructed yet cheaper housing complexes.

Doing the math between 30% of incomes and the newly proposed amount, Cartwright estimates the Housing Department could waive rents for the 10 folks who want to remain at SureStay by securing a $50,000 revenue stream to cover the gap.

“If city hall can't find $100,000 a year to keep 20 seniors housed in a place they feel safe,” Cartwright says, “then it's just a matter of greed.”

Rachel VanderVeen, deputy director of San Jose’s Housing Department, wrote in a Sept. 22 email that SureStay was not only assessed as “safe and healthy,” but also offered a way to “fill a gap” in homeless residents who are scored as less vulnerable in the city’s Homeless Management Information System.

When tenants and advocates asked city staff on Friday why the rates couldn't be lowered, VanderVeen could not come up with any justification other than the decision had already been made to charge $627.

Now, anyone who can’t pay up has to get out.

From left, SureStay tenants Cheryl Fleming, Michelle Becerra and Susan Flores read a notice from hotel management about upcoming evictions. Photo by Katie Lauer

Only 19 of the 73 current tenants could pay the rent hike when the “permanent affordable housing” model was first announced, the city said, and now only 10 are fighting to stay; only 83 people living across five different shelter-in-place motels could afford that cost.

According to city emails obtained by San Jose Inside, 32 others were enrolled in rapid rehousing, four enrolled in permanent supportive housing, two independently found housing, one left due to behavioral issues and one tenant died. Additionally, 14 received assistance through "Housing Problem Solving," but no advocates understood what exactly that service means.

Cheryl Fleming got a room at SureStay after calling a hotline advertised in the news for at-risk people in need of shelter. Dealing with heart failure, COPD, asthma and diabetes, she’s happy to have to have a room while on the waiting list for a new permanent supportive housing complex for seniors being built on Fourth and Younger.

But if SureStay evicts everyone, the 65-year-old doesn’t know what she’ll do until then, and other options the city suggests are too high for the $974 she gets each month from social security. Fleming says she always worked, but that’s not an option anymore, since she can’t stand for long after medical malpractice broke her spine.

“With what we’ve had to put up with here, you don’t put up with that anywhere else you rent,” she says, referring to a rule about monthly room inspections the building’s management recently created. “We don’t have any rights.”

She already feels pressured to leave through the last minute changes in paperwork contracts and verbal commands, even getting written up for cussing. Despite caring for the people at SureStay and getting along with Abode staff, she can’t get over how the city “came in like gangbusters.”

“I don’t like the way they abruptly do everything—acting like they’re always right, we’re always wrong and we’re just homeless people so we have to accept it,” she says. “I’ve grown up tough living on the streets, so I know how to make sure people don’t hurt me. This is a fight that I’ve never really known—it really irks me to the bone.”

16 Comments

  1. Social Security?

    You don’t fight to stay in a motel room, you pay for it.

    Why is this so hard to understand, you HAVE to pay your rent. Period.

  2. I don’t know if this is the same Susan Flores, but a quick look on the SCC case info site reveals a “Susan Marie Flores” with a rap sheet a mile long going back to 1977. I’m not sure if I want to enable this person to continue living here, they’ve sort of shown they’re a non-contributor to society.

    04-09-2021 Dissolution Summary Joint Petition
    06-19-2020 Citation – Criminal
    05-05-2020 Other PI/PD/WD Unlimited (23)
    04-29-2020 Adult Traffic
    10-21-2019 Citation – Criminal
    06-27-2019 Citation – Criminal
    09-28-2018 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    05-02-2016 Adult Traffic
    05-20-2010 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    09-13-2007 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    10-20-2006 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    08-30-2002 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    04-24-2002 Citation – Criminal
    02-21-2002 Citation – Criminal
    10-18-2001 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    10-17-2001 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    10-16-2001 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    05-02-2000 Dept. of Child Support Services (DCSS)
    10-20-1999 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    10-06-1999 Dissolution w/o Minor Children
    03-02-1999 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    02-08-1999 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    01-25-1999 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    08-20-1998 Complaint – Felony
    08-04-1998 Complaint – Felony
    07-24-1998 Complaint – Felony
    08-06-1997 Complaint – Felony
    02-04-1997 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    03-22-1996 Complaint – Misdemeanor
    11-03-1994 Dept. of Child Support Services (DCSS)
    04-06-1992 Citation – Criminal
    02-25-1992 Citation – Criminal
    02-24-1992 Citation – Criminal
    12-02-1991 Citation – Criminal
    11-20-1991 Citation – Criminal
    02-15-1990 Dissolution w/ Minor
    09-07-1989 Citation – Criminal
    05-18-1989 Citation – Criminal
    01-30-1986 Citation – Criminal
    03-07-1984 Citation – Criminal
    07-11-1979 Citation – Criminal
    10-08-1977 Citation – Criminal

  3. This City needs leaders who can come up with an actual plan – not just a series of haphazard efforts, but an actual plan to address homelessness (not some large regional plan, but a City specific plan created by City leadership). The Housing Department can’t come up with a good reason why they are doing this – because there is no good reason, if the report is accurate, to charge the elderly and disabled 2/3 of their income to rent. At the most, it should be the Section 8 model, which is 30% of income (maybe that is what they meant?).

    And publications should really ask why elderly and disabled tenants are being placed in “rapid rehousing,” which is another temporary program that is supposed to assist the work-able (not elderly and disabled) – not those who need permanent housing (rapid rehousing funds often get diverted from their intended purpose to fill gaps in the lack of permanent housing, and it costs a fortune). They will just end up getting a program termination notice down the road, because this City kicks the can. They should also ask why millions are spent in sweeps each year, and not put toward more shelters and interim housing.

  4. “the $974 she gets each month from [S]ocial [S]ecurity”

    If this is the person’s only income, it means not living in the Bay Area and most other California cities.

    Social Security, long-known for low payments, has never been intended to be an only income source.

  5. 76 rooms for the 50,000 homeless people in San Jose. And we spend billions to provide these services for the homeless. The City of San Jose homeless enablement programs have clearly been an abysmal failure. I’m sure that is exactly why we’ll expand the very same failures. The homeless largely need drug intervention and treatment for mental. Both of which can only be provided in institutions. Hence, we provide neither but think that somehow through legalization of drugs all our problems will go away.

  6. Why do they think they are entitled to free rooms? They aren’t being kicked out, just being asked to pay a percentage of their free government money for rent. How many of them used all these months free to look for work and get their own apartment? I’m guessing none.

  7. Nom De Plume:

    Imagine where readers of an online news magazine can spend twenty minutes searching online and uncover more pertinent facts and info than the actual journalists.

  8. William Ashbless :

    This is not a journalism site, nor are the people writing articles journalists, rather it’s a site for advertising, and the “journalists” are actually advertising designers. The last time any real journalism was done here was for George Stamplicker Shirakawa.

    (BTW it was less than 20 minutes, I keep that site on a hot bookmark)

  9. De Plume:

    SJI is not any different than any other news source*. Like Facebook, the news ‘consumer’ is the actual product.

    * There are exceptions, but those are rare as hen’s teeth.

  10. These so-called homeless people get welfare & many taxpayer funded entitlements. They are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and Earn Any Other Funds they need. If you cannot figure out a way to support yourself because you choose to live in an unaffordable area or a lifestyle above your means then get help to figure out what location you can afford to live in.

    ———— ———- Guess which 2 cities are at the top?? —————-
    Cost of Living in 500 cities were indexed to 100, with 100 being the average cost of living for the USA.
    Index values above 100 indicate that the city has a cost of living above the average:
    San Francisco CA 178.6
    San Jose CA 173.5
    https://advisorsmith.com/data/coli/

    —————————
    “One of the consequences of such notions as ‘ENTITLEMENTS’ is that
    people who have
    contributed Nothing to Society,
    Feel that Society OWES them Something,
    apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.”

    (Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy)

  11. Some of it is bad luck I’m sure. But how you end up is only about 10% luck. The rest is diligence. You make your own “luck”. I’m certain that if you go through their entire life history, you will find that they’ve been f—–g off since elementary school. And now the bill has finally come due.

  12. bad luck, bad choices, it does not matter

    the worst choice you can make today is not pay your rent

    first, its stealing – you agreed to pay it, you have been living there, now PAY IT

    second, being homeless with bad credit was bad when you were 25 – it is FAR worse now

    now stop your crying, stop your whining, stop claiming greed, just stop

    AND PAY YOUR RENT

    the “public” is already footing most of your bill, pony up yours

  13. Many of the replies to this article resemble hatemongering and stereotyping of the unhoused as well as a failure to comprehend reading. These unhoused individuals were not seeking free rent. The rent proposed by the City as it bought and converted the SureStay constituted 66% of the interim unhoused resident’s income. I doubt anyone pays 66% of their monthly incone for rent. The proper amount in permanent supportive housing is 30%. Thank you to Asm Alex Lee who looked into the matter and learned the 30% of monthly income was the proper rate. The residents who were going to be kicked out now all will likely remain.

  14. I grew up with asthma; I suffered sinus and respiratory infections my entire life. I started smoking at 16. When I was in my early 40s, my asthma was becoming increasingly worse. I was diagnosed with COPD at age 47. I am now 55. I quit smoking four years ago. The disease does not improve. My good days were far, i was scared that i wont survive it but i was so lucky to receive a herbal products from my step father who bought it while coming from South Africa for Rugby league, this herbal remedies saved me from this disease, at first it helps fight the symptoms of diseases and i was seeing good outcome, i had to use it for 13 weeks just as they Dr was prescribed and i was totally cure of asthma and COPD, (multivitamincare org ) do not hesitate to purchase from them they deliver across worldwide.

  15. I can somewhat agree with most of these posts. However, as rule of thumb, I try not to categorize people as being all the same. Not all homeless people are the same. Example: one poster wrote they are all drug addicts and I believe they said criminals. This is just not true. I know from experience, that someone can work a regular job, and unfortunately something unexpected happens, your car needs major repairs or a hospital bill from a car accident for example. Before you know it, behind on rent, utilities.. it just snowballs out out of control. Next thing you know, you’re evicted, nowhere to go, no car and no family, and eventually loose your job because your on the streets, no place to shower.. It’s a hard to come back from. However, I agree, they do get a small income and should help pay their way. One poster was right in saying they had all that time with free rent and possibly 3 stimulus checks, they should have utilized that time and money better. They should have saved some money and taken small even part time jobs. They were housed, had showers.. ..Better prepared themselves. Nobody is entitled to live for free forever. The state, city, county and probably the federal government has I’m going to say “done their share” now it’s time to help them help you.: Again from experience, when you do, you’ll feel alot better about youself. Good luck to all of you

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