A tenant of a Tenderloin Residential Hotel makes a big difference at an SRO. The SRO, The Camelot, partnered with THC’s modified payment program and to hire a new manager; Craig Lee was that man.
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One Man’s Daily Fight For a Home for Many
SAN FRANCISCO, March 12 — In the daily battle to keep the Camelot Hotel safe for its indigent tenants, Craig Lee’s weapons include a hickory hammer handle, a table leg, and a loud mouth.
The hammer handle stays hidden in his pocket, except when he is threatened by drug dealers accustomed to plying their trade inside the Camelot, until recently one of this city;s most notorious welfare hotels.
The table leg comes in handy for blocking the narrow, sour-smelling corridors when such unwelcome visitors, who have twice assaulted Mr. Lee, trying to push their way in.
But the sticks are strictly backups. “My mouth is my best weapon,” Mr. Lee said. “I get out there and growl, intimidate them to the point that I’m in control of the situation.”
Mr. Lee, who until a few months ago was one of the 7,000 homeless people in this city, has been managing the Camelot since December, with remarkable results. The debris of drug abuse no longer litters the stairwells. Most of the tenants who were dealers have been evicted or left of their own accord. The remaining residents say they no longer cower behind their doors. The 50 rooms are being painted and carpeted, with materials supplied by the Camelot’s owner. And a few tenants have been hired as workers or guards.
“All anybody here wants is a home, a place where they can start to move up the ladder,” said Kathy Carwile, who lives with her fiance in a room with birthday cards and football posters decorating the walls.
Earlier this month, Mr. Lee’s efforts were rewarded with a visit from Mayor Art Agnos, who arrived unannounced as the manager was stepping from the shower. The Mayor waited in the hall while Mr. Lee toweled off, then thanked the hotel manager for setting a standard for neighborhood reclamation,” building by building, block by block.”
Mr. Lee is a burly, 32-year-old Alabamian who bumped around the country after his discharge from the Navy. In Key West, Fla., he worked in a pizza joint and lived in the back of a car. In Philadelphia, again selling pizza, he bought a discount membership at a health club, where he bathed in the locker room and slept on a chaise lounge. In New Orleans, on Mardi Gras, he made enough money hawking hot dogs to rent a flat.
Arriving here last spring without a job or a home, he slept in transient hotels, ate in soup kitchens, sold his own blood and joined the Homeless Task Force, a cadre of indigent men and women who work as advocates for the city’s poor.
Although he says “free food at the meetings is what caught my eye,” Mr. Lee nevertheless caught the attention of city officials and community organizers who were involved in a new program to lower rents and improve conditions in certain welfare hotels. The program, the Modified Payment Plan, offered cooperating landlords direct, guaranteed payment out of tenants’ $326-a-month welfare checks, if they offered below-market rents — $250 a month average rather than $325.
The Camelot, so squalid and dangerous that its occupancy rate had dropped to 30 percent, applied for the program, begun and run by Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which offers free legal services to tenants in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. As a condition of participation, Mr. Shaw said the Camelot’s owners had to hire a manager to replace the existing one, who had allowed drug dealers free run of the building. Craig Lee, Mr. Shaw told them, was the man for the job.
The work is dangerous and the pay trifling, $500 a month and free living quarters, which Mr. Lee shares with Lorett Vergara, a formerly homeless woman who now works for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Twice, Mr. Lee has been beaten by dealers he barred from the building. Recently, at a youth hostel on Turk Street, two doors from the Camelot, the night manager was murdered. The talk in the neighborhood is that Mr. Lee was the intended victim.
“I get scared for him every day,” Ms. Vergara said.
The police have passed the word that “anyone who messes with Craig lee, we’ll find you,” said Capt. Richard Cairns, the commanding officer of the Central Station. This week, at Mr. Lee’s invitation and with Captain Cairns’s approval, several members of the Guardian Angels will move into the Camelot, helping to guard the hotel, which is almost full, and using it as a watch-tower in the neighborhood.
Mr. Lee’s contract runs out at the end of May and he seems torn between his commitment here and his wanderlust. “ I’m still basically traveling,” he said. “But something has held me here a little longer. I live for experiences and this is an experience. If I can just keep from getting bored, who knows, I might stay.”