Community of poor mothers and children in San Francisco’s Mission District is gone due to $700 rent increase fueled by gentrification
by Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio
It was bedtime and my son and I were going through our nightly ritual of gazing at the moon, talking-story, reading and naming our blessings and spirits from the rectangle window in our tiny bedroom. As someone who grew up houseless, rarely sheltered by a roof, much less a window, these moments were filled with gratitude, love and humility, always certain that our impending houselessness lurked silently around the next shaky rental agreement.
I no longer live within the soft wood frame of that house. I was served with a rent increase of $700 two months ago. But of course, the house never belonged to me. I only rented it. Lingered with trepidation within its bright long walls.
And so me, my son and the other poor mamas and countless children who co-habitated together in that house we dubbed Mamahouse – sharing food, stories, resources, art, support, liberation and social justice consciousness in the Mission District of San Francisco – no longer dream, think, rest or live there.
The herstory of Mamahouse
Mamahouse, the rented, smaller version of the sweat-equity co-housing dream that is Homefulness. Mamahouse, the revolutionary concept and project launched by my Mama Dee and me so many years ago as a collective for mothers and children in poverty. A place to live and resist the deep isolation that kills the spirits of so many people in a capitalist society, combat the discrimination that impacts poor single parents of color, and provide peer support and scholarship for the struggle of raising a child in this society that never supports poor parents, much less any parents, and has effectively separated our elders and ancestors from our young folks.
A place to live and resist the deep isolation that kills the spirits of so many people in a capitalist society
Mamahouse has always worked, even as capitalism hasn’t. In its first incarnation, Mamahouse existed within a tiny one bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin district, launched by a revolutionary slice of philanthro-pimped dollars, meant solely for a series of writing workshops with youth, adults and elders in poverty and the publication of Volume 1 of POOR Magazine, which was called “HOMEFULNESS.” The workshops and publication were done with great success, at which point my revolutionary, community driven, always tortured by capitalism, indigenous Taino single mama of color in poverty, Dee, announced in an act of change-By-Any-Means-Necessary, “Let’s realize the dream of Homefulness beyond the pages; otherwise, we may never see it happen.”
My beautiful and sad mama, tortured as an unwanted child of color in Amerikkkan foster homes and orphanages, stripped, separated and devoid of her indigenous family, culture, language and community, never took anything for granted. She always knew, like all us po’ folks know, that if you ever have any access, or money, that there is absolutely no guarantee that it will continue to be there or continue to flow, no matter how hard you pull up your bootstraps or dream the only-in-sleep Amerikkkan Dream.
As a Taino-Boricua-African-Irish-Roma and half-kkkolonizer human, I have lived my life in the ways of our elders, the indigenous way. When I was 11, my mama became disabled from her life of deep struggle with violence, racism and poverty. I had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to take care of her and start working in different underground economies. We struggled in and out of homelessness for the duration of my childhood and into my young adulthood. And as soon as we had a few resources to realize any dreams of counter-capitalism separate-ness, we did.
It was never easy. We were never supported in our efforts. But we knew if we were to infiltrate the destruction of capitalist separatism in real time, in our own lives, as a poor single mama of color and daughter with no extended family or community, it was necessary that we act fast and act revolutionarily.
I lived as a “good daughter” with my ghetto-fabulous mama creating art, revolution and as much community as our resource-poor POOR Magazine family could cobble together, until she passed on her spirit journey in March of 2006.
I work so hard in my mind and heart every day to not take my son through the sorrow of loneliness, desperation and poverty that me and my mama felt for so many years. Isolation kills. Capitalism promotes isolation and the cult of independence and separation. Our barometer for sanity is based on how “happy” we can be while being alone, separate from others and at peace with our solitude.
Western psycho-therapists prescribe deadly drugs to help us be OK and happy and “sane” with our “alone-ness.” Hyper-consumer culture sells us constantly on the products that help us find independence, safety and security in our alone-ness. We are sold on the ghettoization of senior housing which “safely” houses our beautiful elders and securely archives, buries alive and forever silences their robust and deep and complex human souls. Away.
The tenderloin Mamahouse circa 1998 successfully housed two landless indigenous families, ran beautiful community dinners and art events and silly moments of love and indigenous justice in real time.
We had to end it one year later, due to no more funding. Sadly, capital campaigns (property acquisitions) are usually only launched and realized by already wealthy organizations and individuals who have access to long ago stolen-from-indigenous-peoples U.S. resources.
In 2005, after a series of very serious organizational and personal losses at POOR Magazine – organizational and personal lives are naturally enmeshed as a part of revolutionary poor people-led/indigenous people-led organizations like ours – I founded the next series of Mamahouses, this one in a substandard house in the Mission District, shared with many non-paying tenants with tails and feathers and wings and antennas. These unseen tenants facilitated the only truly affordable market rate housing in the brutally gentrified Mission District of San Francisco.
In 2007, the slumlord from hell of this Mamahouse actually set fire to her own property to rid her building of “problem tenants” like us mamas and children – in other words, tenants who tried to get her to fix the plumbing and rid the house of the serious rat, roach and pigeon infestations, proving one of my other theories, that poor folks who want and need to stay have to take substandard dangerous conditions like mold, insect infestation and asbestos, even if it kills us, just to remain housed.
Which brought us to Mamahouse – the Gentrification Palace – an unbelievably beautiful place with shining floors and spacious rooms and a back yard out of the pages of a glossy magazine, only affordable to us poor mamaz because one of the mamaz had a housing subsidy.
Poor folks who want and need to stay have to take substandard dangerous conditions like mold, insect infestation and asbestos, even if it kills us, just to remain housed.
“Mama, can we stay here forever?” my son would say while we lived within its serene structure with multiple other mamaz in and out of crisis, several children, a houseless family member or two and birds, cats and even a little dog, sharing stories, dreams, ideas and equity, crafting complex future plans for Homefulness’s truly shared equity and food localization and a micro-business economic self-sustainability model.
And then one day it was over. The slice of paper hung flimsily from the grand blue oak door: “60 Day NOTICE.” Its words, slashing across the page, dripped with ancient blood of conquistadors, missionaries, real estate speculators, mortgage brokers, developers and benevolent landlords. My relationship with its beauty, its never-really-mine stability, its community with other mamaz and families, life-breathing support and love, was gone.
On our last day at Mamahouse, all of us indigenous mamaz, brothers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunties, grandmothers and grandfathers huddled together, our abuelita pictures, icons and spirits from our mama altars, our clothing, stuffies, beds, desks, chairs, wastebaskets, feathers, icons, beads, shoes and toys strewn across the sidewalk, scattered from the wind-less hurricane of deadly gentrification and displacement, while default gentrifiers raced by to get $4 free trade organic coffee and raw vegan donuts at the plethora of blond wood filled cafes and $100 artist designer dresses at the new “underground” clothing stores beginning to fill up all the storefronts in our Inner-Mission neighborhood.
My eyes cry tears of untold evictions and displacement of communities – of children and elders – faces that are left in faded murals to be covered in sheets of cold white paint or brushed over by the whimsical brush strokes of hipster artists who have no respect for the neighborhoods they gentrify.
As the rays of warm Mission sun began to slip away through our beloved, no-longer-ours front yard tree, all us mamas and children were still pulling thing after tragic thing out of unseen crevasses in the house.
All of sudden, my son, perched on a box full of his complete collection of legos, looked up at me, tilting his head to the side and holding back tears: “Mama, its ok, I just figured it out. We are going to move to Homefulness after this, and then we will all be OK.”
To this day, my son and I are still houseless. We have bounced in and out of different temporary living situations all over the Bay and although I no longer live in the neighborhood, I still inhabit it on the margins, driving past my street, glancing at the just painted front steps, the newly planted flowers in the front yard, dreaming of the sounds, the love, the times spent in community there, lingering within its inside-ness. Remembering, always recollecting the words of the Po’ Poet Laureate of POOR Magazine, A. Faye Hicks, “When us po’ folk are evicted, we don’t always leave the neighborhood; we just move into the sidewalk hotels, the cardboard hotels, the street.”
Read more about issues of poverty and race written by the people who face them daily at POOR Magazine/POOR News Network, http://www.poormagazine.org/. Tony Robles contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: Please help Tiny, Tiburcio and the rest of the POOR family find Homefulness at last. Contact Tiny at email@example.com with any assistance or suggestions. Become a Revolutionary Donor at http://poormagazine.org/rev_donor.