San Francisco hotel staff battle overdose crisis
Hotel staff like Laverne Taylor can relate to guests. She says she was addicted to drugs as a teenager and lived on the streets. She remembers getting high just to stay warm.
Taylor served several stints in prison before being sentenced to life for murder. After serving 26 years behind bars, she was released in 2019 when the then Governor. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence. Soon after, she was working at the Whitcomb Hotel.
Taylor says her heart broke watching guests struggle to adjust to life indoors after years on the streets.
“You had people you were getting off the streets, literally, and you put them all in a [three]-star hotel,” Taylor said. “You would see the room and it looked like it had been torn down, tents in there. We could not understand. ‘Why do you have a tent in there?'”
She said some people needed help even with mundane tasks like turning on showers or using TV remotes.
Taylor has used CPR on guests more than a dozen times and attempted to revive people after overdoses – usually successfully, but sometimes not.
She was working at the Whitcomb Hotel the day Sterling Ulrich died. She had become closer to Ulrich, who was just beginning to open up to the staff.
When Taylor heard the emergency call on the hotel radio with Ulrich’s name, her heart raced. When she found Ulrich, she began CPR, combining mouth breathing and chest compressions with another colleague, until it became clear that they could not save Ulrich.
“It’s like a scene from a bad movie where people try and try and try until someone takes them away,” Taylor said.
Staff need ongoing trauma counseling
Shortly after the Whitcomb Hotel opened to vulnerable residents, an organization called the Harm Reduction Therapy Center began providing counseling to staff who were seeing overdoses.
Anna Berg is a clinical social worker for the centre. She says the Whitcomb Hotel has become a microcosm of the city’s multiple social crises. The same mental health and addictions issues that were happening every day on the streets were now happening under one roof, and that had an impact on the staff. She said the staff there needed long-term support rather than after overdoses and other emergencies.
She said staff trauma was a major unintended consequence of these hotels.
“Seeing someone go through trauma is still trauma – those repeated exposures that staff go through to incredibly traumatic life or death events and you feel responsible for it, even though you’re not. “, she said.
Brandi Marshall took a job with Five Keys in November specifically to meet the need for staff support. She says it is difficult to work at the Whitcomb Hotel, where guests continue to use deadly drugs after overdoses.
Marshall served in the military and volunteered to return to Iraq shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She said that because of the trauma she experienced watching people die while she was in the military, she knows how to block out some of the emotional aspects of her job at the hotel.
“I mastered this art from Iraq,” she said. “[My co-workers] really absorbed a lot, coming out of prison. They absorb everything that happens around them.
Monique LeSarre, executive director of the Rafiki Coalition for Health and Wellness, a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing health inequities in underserved communities, said her therapists counseled staff at the Whitcomb Hotel in crisis.
“[Staff are] bring people back to life, [people] who then roll over and die the next day,” LeSarre said. “Their own mental health is suffering. It’s really unethical, really, really, really unethical, not to provide the right level of support.
LeSarre said she applied for funding for mental health support from the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. But, she says, the agency turned down the grant proposal.
Asked about it, Denny Machuca-Grebe, spokesperson for the agency, responded in a written statement.
“While agencies provide day-to-day support and services to people facing many mental health, addictions and housing issues, we are acutely aware of the difficulty of serving vulnerable communities while taking care of ourselves in as individuals,” he said. wrote.
Machuca-Grebe did not respond to KQED’s question about what efforts may be underway to support the mental health of shelter-in-place hotel staff.
He said to contact Five Keys to find out what steps the nonprofit is taking to support its staff.
Marshall says she and other employees are starting to open up more about some of the trauma they face. Five Keys has launched support groups for employees, including a group for women. At first, only one or two people attended these sessions. Now dozens of people are showing up, Marshall said, talking about everything from their own deceased children to reversing overdoses.
Steps towards stability
Dawn Koch has lived at the Whitcomb Hotel since last August and wants to start a group for hotel residents to support each other. She carries Narcan with her everywhere and says creating a sense of community is also an important part of harm reduction.
“There are too many people who are so lost that they don’t even know each other anymore. Unless you have someone to help you from then on, you feel like you are always lost,” she said.
“I really saw too many people here one minute and left the next,” she said.
Another hotel resident, Teddy Melendez, uses fentanyl on the sidewalk so people are nearby to save him if he overdoses. People regularly gather in front of the hotel and use drugs.
Melendez said he uses less fentanyl because he takes drugs to reduce cravings and relieve withdrawal pain.
“I want to have my own place, have my own apartment. For me to do that, I have to stop using,” he said.
San Francisco officials plan to end the city’s emergency hotel program in September. Until now, just over half of clients considered eligible for housing under the program found it, and it is mostly permanent housing. Eligibility is based on a number of factors, such as a person’s health or how long they have been homeless.
Eldridge Cruse, the hotel supervisor, tells staff to focus on the overdoses they reversed rather than the people they couldn’t save.
“You have to have x-ray vision or cameras in every room and monitor every room to figure out what’s going on. But you can’t,” Cruse said. “We received the hand and played it as best we could. No loss of life is acceptable. But we couldn’t prevent what was about to happen. We could not.