San Francisco’s Hidden Shame

This is a story about Jim Ayers, a friend of mine who for over two decades lived and worked on Sixth Street and devoted himself to improving his community. To give you an idea of what he’s like and what he’s done, here is a piece I wrote about Jim several years ago.

In Praise of a Hero

Jim

I could talk for a long time about Jim Ayers. His life story is not just remarkable, it is truly inspiring, like a tale written by John Steinbeck or Mark Twain. HL Mencken would have loved him. As I have only two minutes to speak, I’ll give you instead the simple, unadorned reasons that Jim is so highly deserving of this award, which I am enormously pleased to be presenting to him.*

Integrity: Jim is the living, breathing definition. He is, without question, the most trusted person in his community. Jim may be a man of few words, but you can be certain that what he says will always be the truth. Blunt, gruff and unpolished, Jim is also one of the most lovable persons I have ever known, and he has a heart to match. A more compassionate man you will not find. Best of all, Jim shares these virtues with his community.

During the eleven years that he worked there, Jim made Grady’s a comfortable and safe haven for the many seniors who live on Sixth Street. It was, in fact, the only place in the neighborhood where they could escape from their lonely, cramped hotel rooms to socialize, have their morning coffee and read the paper. For Jim, tending bar was entirely secondary to providing for the social needs of Sixth Street’s seniors.

Jim has fought tirelessly and single-handedly for the rights and welfare of the tenants of the Lawrence Hotel, where he has lived for the past fourteen years. After years of thankless, solitary struggle at City Hall and in court, and in the face of intimidation, property damage and physical threats, Jim is winning the battle to force Club Six, the bane of Sixth Street residents since it opened, to comply with noise and public nuisance laws. No one has done more for his community than Jim Ayers, a man I am proud to call my friend.

*The text is a speech I gave when presenting Jim with a Community Leadership Award in May 2007. Regarding the photograph, Jim hates having his picture taken, so he’ll make faces or look away if he’s aware of the camera. In order to catch Jim off-guard, I photographed him through a crowd of people from across the Board of Supervisors chambers at City Hall, hence the grainy and tightly cropped image.

Jim was one of the founding members of the Central City SRO Collaborative back in 2001, an organization that was originally intended to improve the quality of life for those who live in residential hotels, and he has steadfastly remained true to that mission ever since, though the organization was long ago subverted by the personal and political agendas of its de facto administrator Randy Shaw.

Several weeks ago, Jim—who is sixty-five years old and subsists on a meager income from Social Security—was evicted by the landlord of the Lawrence Hotel for purely political reasons, and he has been living on the streets in his pickup truck ever since. Jim is a very proud man and refuses to use my shower or just come to my place to get some rest. People and organizations that should be tripping over each other to offer him housing have been consistent in their inability or outright refusal to help in any way.

If this story makes you uncomfortable, tough shit. I want it to. This is what life is like when you’re poor, even if you have a public presence and have devoted years of your life to improving your community. Fact is, poor people don’t count, and San Francisco, for all it’s self-serving “progressives” and self-congratulatory back patting, simply doesn’t give a fuck.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re sitting in your comfortable home, reading this on your expensive iPad, thinking, “Gee, how awful. Thank God, that can never happen to me,” think again. Years ago, I lost everything and endured nearly six years of homelessness here in San Francisco,* and I can tell you from first-hand experience that life can be a selfish and unpredictable bitch. The real question is, are you going to watch from the sidelines or get involved? Whether you like it or not, this is about all of us.

*If you want the details, read my Personal History.

UPDATE, 02 Nov 12, 4:30pm: Good news! Jim has been offered temporary housing and Don Falk, the director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, has been working with me to help get Jim a permanent place in one of their buildings as soon as possible. Thanks to all who have responded from the bottom of my heart. If you’d like to donate to TNDC for stepping forward to help, here is where to do it.

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20 Comments

Filed under Local Characters, Messages, Mid-Market, Sixth Street, Tenderloin

20 responses to “San Francisco’s Hidden Shame

  1. Carlin Quinn

    How can readers help? I am interested in learning more– I know Jim’s story is one of many but I am also interested in hearing how we can help get him what he needs.

    • What you and others can do is fax Ed Lee (415-554-6671) and email Jane Kim (Jane.Kim@sfgov.org) at City Hall and James Tracy (jtracy@chp-sf.org) at the Community Housing Partnership. The more people that get on board, the greater the pressure will be for appropriate action to be taken. Use the heading “Housing Justice for Jim Ayers” for all your communications to get their attention. Be firm but polite, please.

  2. GlenParkDaddy

    What is wrong with Club Six?

  3. Cheryl Rody

    OMG Mark. This is outrageous and it is disheartening to see good people like your friend kicked to the curb. This is a beautiful tribute to Jim Ayers, a very dedicated and caring person. Please keep us posted on his progress as well as yours. All the best to both of you.

    • Jim may be down, but he’s far from out. What’s happened to him enrages me to my core and I’ll be damned if I stop hounding people and rattling the cages of those who can help until Jim gets the decent and affordable housing he so justly deserves.

  4. Catherine Al-Meten

    I’m not living in SF, but come there regularly to visit family. What does he need and who, if anyone, is organizing a way to get him a home again? I don’t have much, but could write to try to get some help for him. What practical steps can be taken?

    • I’m working on it, Catherine. I’ve written and talked to directors of nonprofit housing corporations here in SF, most of whom I know on a personal basis, but only one has responded so far with anything even remotely hopeful.

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