L-R: Carlos, Marvin, Jorge, and Jimmy; Lucia lies across them
A few weeks ago, on January 28th, at around 6:45pm, I rode my bike by a fire in San Francisco’s Mission District on the way home from Priceonomics. It was fairly small at the time, and appeared to have just started, but the thick, black plumes of smoke rising from the building indicated that the situation was grave inside.
I stayed just long enough to see a man bleeding from his head yell out to a group of onlookers that he’ lost his home -- then I left. But as the fire faded out of view behind me, I couldn’t shake a thought: each one of the units in that building housed a life.
When I got home, I created a crowdfunding page to raise money for whoever was in there. It took me 10 minutes, and my goal was modest: to raise $2,000. San Franciscans had a different idea. In the past 15 days, 2,195 donors from all walks of life have come together to raise more than $176,000.
As a result, I’ve gotten to know many the residents of 3222 Mission Street on a personal level. There are 64 of them -- some 18 families in total. They are low-income, Latino families who fled from El Salvador, Honduras, and Ecuador. They are elderly couples who’ve lived there for more than 40 years. They are construction workers, cooks, and house cleaners. But they are also engineers and young professionals. In every sense, those who lived there are a microcosm of San Francisco’s Mission District -- and there’s a wide disparity in the resources they’ve been offered.
This disparity is especially apparent through the stories of two of these residents: “Sam” [name changed], a middle-class, white educator, and Jorge Flores, a low-income, El Salvadoran parking attendant. Sam, supported by the networks he’d established in college, and at his white-collar job, emerged from the rubble with a rent-free home, ample financial funds, and a degree of stability. Jorge, an immigrant with less-fruitful connections, remains homeless, faces $400,000 in medical bills, and struggles to keep his family afloat.
Both lived in the same building and endured the same fire, yet each has arisen from the crisis in a drastically different way.
Sam grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and continued on to college in the same state. When he graduated in 1992, education “was the only thing that made sense” to him as a career path.
He joined Teach for America, a nonprofit that that “[enlists] high-achieving recent college graduates to teach,” and was placed in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. There, he taught English as a second language, and his Spanish skills improved until he became "fluent in bad Spanish."
After spending a few years teaching English language learners in the Rio Grande Valley and Austin, Sam packed up and moved to San Francisco, a place he’d always been drawn to. By 2002, he’d settled down in the Mission District, in a big studio on 22nd Street. “All the other units in the building were rented by word of mouth, and stayed within the Latino community,” he says. “I found the place on Craigslist.” Sam quickly fell in love with the culture of the neighborhood; at the same time, he retrospectively acknowledges that he contributed to its gentrification.
“Really, the last three or four years, the Mission has changed rapidly -- it’s completely different,” he says. “I’m part of that to some degree. Even though I was there for 12 years, I was a step in that direction.”
As a high school teacher, Sam's income was more significant than most tenants in the building. He eventually began overseeing a program for English language learners, and rose in the administrative ranks to vice principal of a high school on the Peninsula.
In 2012, he reconnected with an old flame -- a woman he’d kept in touch with since his high school days in Maryland. She moved in, and by mid-2014, was pregnant. With the baby due in early February, the couple began to arrange for what they expected to be one of the happiest days of their lives.
Down the hall, another tenant, Jorge Flores, worked tirelessly to keep his family financially stable.
In 1990, he left El Salvador and came to San Francisco to provide a better future for his wife and three sons back home. After working for five years as a dishwasher and a fry cook at Hard Rock Cafe, he finally succeeded in bringing them over to America.
The five of them -- Jorge, Lucia, and sons, Jimmy (then 14), Carlos (then 12), and Marvin (then 6) -- packed into a tiny studio at Mission and 22nd Streets. They’d call this home for the next 18 years.
“Five people in there,” laughs Jorge. “That was crazy, crazy. The three boys were in one room, and we [had] a sheet dividing the [apartment] into two rooms.”
Lucia and Jorge have been married since 1981; the Mission is the only place they’ve called home in America
Though the rent was only around $900 per month, Jorge and his wife, a housekeeper, had to take on multiple shifts to support their children. “I started working two jobs,” he recalls. “When you have three boys, it’s a lot of money to spend…They want to eat cereal every day. I go buy cereal every week -- 20 bucks of cereal a week! Oh my god! I was working double-time for 10 years.”
But all of this hard work came with the reward of being able to stay in the community they loved. For the Flores family, the Mission wasn’t just a home -- it defined who they were.
In addition to his work duties, Jorge established himself as the go-to DJ for neighborhood parties. “They called me, and said ‘Jorgito! Jorgito! Can you make my party?!’” laughs Jorge. “Whatever kind of party they had going on, I was there.”
Jorge, along with all the guys in his building, would get together each week and play soccer matches under the lights of Mission Playground, while Lucia frequented the local markets for “frijoles” and taquitos. “It was easy for her,” says her husband. “She had everything she needed right there.”
Living in tight quarters, and all sharing in the same cultural displacement from El Salvador, the family developed an intensely close bond. “Each other is all we had,” says eldest son Jimmy. “Family was everything.”
Then, in May 2014, on Mother’s Day, the family endured an unimaginable tragedy: Marvin Flores, just 23 years old -- the youngest of the three brothers -- passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. While the Flores family grieved, Marvin’s girlfriend came forward with an announcement: she was pregnant with Marvin’s child.
On Tuesday, January 27th, at 9:30AM, Sam was in the middle of some administrative paperwork when he received the call: his partner’s water had just broken. He was going to be a father. “I knew I’d be out for two weeks’ paternity leave,” says Sam, “so I checked in with some people, lined up my tasks, then headed up to the city.”
His partner’s contractions were still 25 minutes apart, and the couple knew they had some time. They sat in their kitchen, made a nice lunch, and surveyed the apartment. Everything was in order, and prepared for the new family member, says Sam:
“We had just bought a bed to put in the dining area, and we were going to put a curtain and have a little room as a guest bedroom. We thought maybe [the child] could have that bed someday. We had diapers, clothes, everything -- we had even bought 20 ‘onesies.’ The place was full of baby stuff.”
They each packed a small overnight bag, took a final look around, and embarked to the hospital in Redwood City, about a 40-minute drive south of San Francisco.
The following day, at 2:12PM, the couple gave birth to a healthy baby girl -- “a strong, vital little thing.” The next five hours were a blitz of texting friends, parents, and colleagues the good news. “We were going through all the elation of having a child,” says Sam “I sent my boss a picture, and said ‘Everything’s perfect.’”
As the flurry of emotion began to calm, and the newborn drifted off, Sam’s partner, "Melissa" (name changed) received a series of ominous text messages from the couple’s neighbor, Araceli, who worked at the laundromat they frequented:
Araceli: where are you?
Melissa: we’re in the hospital. we just had the baby!
Araceli: where is [Sam]? is he with you?
Melissa: yes, why?
Araceli: are you out?
Then, at about 7:40PM, Araceli called. “She said, ‘Are you guys at the apartment?’ and I could hear panic in her voice,” recalls Sam “At that point, she said, ‘The building is on fire.’”
Sam snapped into provider mode: he had a newborn and now he had to ensure that the family had a place to go home to after the 12-hour hospital stay. He recalls his dilemma leaving his newborn’s side:
“I told our nurse theres a fire at our place, and I just bolted to my car. I thought, did they just think I was a dad who panicked as soon his baby was born? I mean, who would believe that the day your child is born your place is burning down?”
When Sam arrived at the scene, the street was cordoned off. He knew that his 10-year-old cat, Lemur, was still in the building, but was told there was nothing he could do about it. Standing in a crowd of onlookers, he watched the flames grow higher and gradually realized that he wouldn’t be coming home with his family the following morning.
He returned to the hospital and began the long, stressful process of alerting all of his friends and family of the loss -- the same friends and family who, hours earlier, had received texts of his first child’s beaming face.
As passersby watched the flames multiply from the safety of the sidewalk, Jorge Flores remained in his apartment, oblivious to the chaos that was unfolding around him. “I was doing some music edits,” he says, “and I [had] my headphones [on].”
By the time he smelled the smoke, and became aware there was a fire, it was too late to make a clean escape. In desperation, he kicked open his door, and tried to make his way down the hallway, but says it was “like a wall of heat.” He could feel the flesh on his face burning, and put up his hands to protect himself; very quickly, the skin on his hands “melted.”
Jorge pivoted, and began pounding on his neighbor’s door. The neighbor, Elvis Rivera, then pulled off a feat of storied heroism: with a bird cage in one hand, he slung Jorge over his shoulder, and assisted him out of a third-story fire escape, onto the awning of La Alteña Taqueria. There, the fire escape ladder jammed, and Jorge had to await assistance from firefighters to descend.
Jorge’s injuries were grave and extensive: he suffered third degree burns on his face and arms; his hands were so horribly burned that he didn’t recognize his own skin. To endure the pain, he had to be put into an induced coma.
As he was being rushed in an ambulance to the hospital, Jorge’s sons and wife were alerted by family members. Carlos, in Reno at the time with his wife, immediately cut his trip short and made the four hour drive back to San Francisco; he arrived at the hospital at 3AM.
“I saw him, and just said, ‘Oh God,’” he recalls. “It was one of those pictures you just want to erase from your mind.”
For 13 days, Jorge Flores drifted in and out of consciousness; often, he’d hallucinate. “He’d see our grandmother in the room when she wasn’t there,” says Jimmy. “And he’d wake up thinking he’s trapped, like in a jail, like a prisoner.” During the course of Jorge’s hospital stay, the family didn’t even have time to process that they’d lost their home and everything in it: all that mattered was the man’s recovery.
Yesterday, more than two weeks since the fire desecrated his home, Jorge was finally sent home from the hospital. With his release comes great relief for his family, but also the pang of all the realities they’ve been ignoring: they are homeless, left without documents and clothing, and unsure of what to do next.
“Now that my dad is recovering, there’s all these big questions,” says Jimmy. “Where are we going? What are we doing? It still hasn’t hit us that we lost everything. We lost our home.”
“Sometimes I think I’m going to go home right now and eat a bowl of cereal,” adds Carlos. “Then I realize I can’t do that. It’s a weird feeling not having a home to go to.”
In the interim, the family is at a Holiday Inn, sharing beds and trying to plan meals. While Carlos applauds the Red Cross for its hard work and support, he realizes that soon, his family will have to fend for itself. And there is much to fend off: Jorge’s medical bills total more than $400,000, and Medi-Cal will only cover February’s expenses -- not those from January, when the bulk of Jorge’s reparative procedures were done.
Jorge, propped up in a bed with heavily bandaged hands, is eager to get back to providing for his family, but is left powerless. “I want to go work,” he says. “I think, ‘When is this thing going to heal up?’ I want to be normal again -- work, make music, play soccer -- be normal again.”
If there is a saving grace to the Flores family’s past year, it is this: the day after the fire, the girlfriend of Marvin, the Flores’ slain son, gave birth to Marvin’s baby boy. He looks just like his father.
Sam has had a different experience following the fire.
After learning of his ordeal, the hospital allowed him and his partner to stay for another 24 hours; in that time span, says Sam, “My networks kicked in.” His past and present schools, both in well-to-do suburban districts, chipped in and donated everything he needed to get back on his feet: baby stuff, clothing, money, and even free housing.
An old friend from Teach for America was swift to offer his place free of cost for two weeks; following that, a parent at his old school extended a place rent-free until the Summer of 2015.
“It’s incredible -- it’s freaking incredible,” says Sam. “It lets me return to work and earn a living, and it gives us time to readjust, find another place. We had basic needs taken care of just like that.”
Because of this fortune, Sam is opting to forego his portion of the $177,000 the community and I raised for the victims of the fire. “I’ve got a solid job, savings, and retirement money,” he says. “A lot of people in my building don’t.” Sam recognizes that this is a result of being a part of a privileged network:
“Being a white person with a white collar job and a college education, I have all these connections to people with a degree of affluence, and they have the ability to help me. Sixty-four people hit the same bump in the road. What happens to them after that bump? We’ve been given an incredible house in one of the most expensive zip codes in the country; others are in the shelter. It points out disparities in our society.”
Despite the disparity in their current situations, the Flores family and Sam share a commonality: out of their tragedies, came rebirth -- and not just in the form of two newborns.
“I’ve been born again,” says Jorge, with a wry smile. “Now, we start again.”
If you’d like to help out the Flores family, as well as all other affected families, please consider donating to my GoFundMe page. I’m currently working with MEDA, a local non-profit, to make sure these funds are distributed to all affected residents in cash payments by the end of this month. The Flores family has also set up their own crowdfunding campaign; so far, they have only raised $500. Anything helps.
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