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This narrative in the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness is published with permission, as part of a partnership with Prism. Interview and editing by Annaick Miller and Ela Banerjee.

Salvador Guerrero grew up in Lima, Peru, and migrated to New York in his twenties, later moving to the Bay Area where he has lived for the past twelve years—a period of skyrocketing rents and costs in the region. Here, Salvador shares his experiences with housing insecurity, disability, and isolation while living in a shelter-in-place hotel in San Francisco, which the city provides for unhoused individuals and essential workers during the pandemic. Due to unsafe living conditions, Salvador had to leave his prior housing at the beginning of the pandemic and has since struggled to access affordable, independent housing. Salvador works for an organization that provides services to senior centers. He used a pseudonym to protect his privacy. 

Since June 2020, I’ve been living in one of the shelter-in-place hotels that the city and county of San Francisco provides for essential workers and the homeless. I qualified for a spot in one of these hotels because I was in both situations.

I lost my place near the start of the pandemic and became homeless. I was completely hopeless when I was living on the streets. You find yourself alone and you think, What am I going to do? Where will I go at night? You also face violence from strangers. I usually tried to look for people to stick together with during the night, but sometimes that’s difficult to find. 

I looked for organizations that might be able to help me, but I was not the only person facing this situation and many others were more vulnerable than me. San Francisco has a huge homeless population. It was scary to be on the streets and wait in long lines to get into a shelter. Sometimes shelters wouldn’t let me in because they said they were full. Inside the shelters, people are all packed together and share one huge bathroom with toilets and showers. 

The shelter system is a broken system. Being in a shelter is like being in jail and having everything controlled. I was going there just to sleep, but I had to be there by seven o’clock. That meant I had to interrupt my work schedule and run from work to the shelter to wait in a long line to find a bed. People who worked at the shelter treated us as if we had no rights, as if we were completely useless and worthless. I experienced discrimination, humiliation, retaliation, yelling. There is trauma in finding yourself homeless in a society that is prejudiced against homeless people. Even though the news and people say that there is tolerance, the truth is the opposite.

I was able to get into a shelter and stayed there for almost six months before moving into the shelter-in-place hotel. I was lucky. I met people from the Homeless Outreach Team who connected me with the right people, and that’s how I was able to get into a hotel, where I have kept myself safe during the pandemic. Getting out of the shelter and having my own space and time to get my head back on my shoulders and think clearly was a blessing.

I was lucky that I got a big unit in the hotel. I have a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom. I’m on the fifth floor. I have a window that faces Geary Street. The window could have been fun to look out, but because of the coronavirus, you see very few people walking on the streets. 

When I first moved here, I was excited. The staff working at the hotel was nice, but then, two months later, new people started working here. They were very stressed out and weren’t helpful. I started facing situations that were very uncomfortable. Not only for me, but for the other people living here too. We had no voice. We couldn’t bring up issues about anything—like a broken elevator or lack of toilet paper—because staff would get angry and no one would help us. When I requested an accommodation for my disability, I was mocked. The staff threw it in my face over and over, maybe ten times. It was traumatizing for me. When I left the shelter and came to the hotel, I thought I was going to be treated with more kindness and humanity. I thought that people were going to listen to me. But that wasn’t the case.

The city has plans for everyone in the shelter-in-place hotels to be transferred to stable housing, but the reality is different. There is very little available affordable housing, and it’s extremely difficult to access. Around November, we heard that the shelter-in-place hotels were going to be shut down by the city government. That was a very intense situation. The one I am in has stayed open, luckily. But I don’t know when they might end the hotel program. 

Being forced out of the hotel would be really scary. I’d be vulnerable again, in my condition. I had a stroke when I was 17 years old, and the left side of my body was paralyzed. I notice that as I’m aging, things are getting tougher. It’s more difficult for me to move around and focus and live a normal day like I used to. That’s the scariest part. I am mentally stable, but I’m coping with physical limitations that I never had before. Going back on the streets would be horrible, especially now that we have a new variant of the coronavirus in California. Having a disability makes me more vulnerable to coronavirus since my system is already a bit weak, especially if I don’t work out or I’m not eating healthy. 

I first became eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for having a disability and a low income 10 years ago. I received SSI for seven years, which is the time limit for receiving SSI for people who are not in the country legally. But I became a citizen last year, so SSI was reinstated for me. Because I work twenty hours a week, I only get partial SSI benefits. It’s not a lot of money. Things are very expensive nowadays, and I quickly realized, Oh, this won’t be enough.

Finding resources is the most difficult part for people going through this coronavirus crisis. It has been for me. Finding resources is also part of my work for the Community Living Campaign. We provide services to senior centers, and I teach seniors how to use devices. During this crisis, I teach them how to get on Zoom so they can stay active and connected with people—their friends and doctors. And how to use their cell phones, tablets, or laptops. The hardest part is instructing them over camera. That made me more creative in terms of how to teach. 

Things are very uncertain for me compared to before the pandemic. I wake up and I prepare to teach some classes. But other than that, when I finish my tutoring, I have nowhere to go, I have nothing to do, and I am stuck in my room. I try to keep myself busy, but it’s difficult. Helping others is the only way for me to cope with this isolation and distress that I’m facing day after day.

I’ve been having a tough time with my mental health. My life has changed a lot in the last year. At first I thought I was going to be able to cope with it, but I’ve noticed lately that things are not so easy. This uncertainty, and doing the same things day after day, and not being able to go anywhere—that makes me afraid. 

My granny just passed away from the coronavirus. She lived in Peru, but she got infected in New York. She was visiting New York when she got sick, then she went back to Peru and died there. When the pandemic started, she and I would talk a lot. She never expected this would happen and was scared. She died, and her son died, and then my brother got sick, also from the coronavirus. I was able to find grief support groups in San Francisco and in Marin, which I’m thankful for. Otherwise, I would not have been able to cope. 

I’m concerned about my future. I turned 50 years old last year. I don’t know how long I will be able to continue doing this job because we get state funding, and I worry that funding, along with SSI, might come to an end someday. I don’t have stable housing yet, but I hope to. I just want to start aging with grace. That was my hope before the pandemic, and it still is.

As long as I can be independent enough, I’m okay. For me, aging gracefully means having my own resources, a place to live, and maybe a partner. And a dog.

Ela Banerjee is the Community Partnership Coordinator at Voice of Witness, an oral history nonprofit that amplifies the voices of people impacted by—and fighting against—injustice.

Annaick Miller is the Communications and Outreach Manager at Voice of Witness, an oral history nonprofit that amplifies the voices of people impacted by—and fighting against—injustice.