San Francisco SantaCon 2013

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A Lasting Impression

I learned more about the Castro District in the past four months of reporting on the neighborhood, than I ever did over the nine months of working in the area. I am not surprised that my presumption about the diverse community has been verified and even exceeded after this experience. I can honestly call Castro a second home to me because of how inclusive and open the people are.

Compared to other neighborhoods around the city, the Castro District manifests its own unique culture and tight-knit community. Residents and merchants invest much more into their organizations, businesses and livelihood than other parts of the city that I’ve ventured into. Support is offered and shared at every turn, may it be a sidewalk musician just playing for passerby’s or an impromptu rally or protest in Jane Warner Plaza. I’ve seen people pause their own priorities to help someone on the street, even if a large majority of residents think there’s a homeless problem. I unexpectedly found myself at ease with the amount of foot traffic it continuously renders because people actually acknowledge one another, either with a nod or simple smile. Those are the small, yet powerful characteristics that create a sense of community and camaraderie that seems to be lost throughout a majority of San Francisco.

Just another beautiful, sunny day in the Jane Warner Plaza.

Just another beautiful, sunny day in the Jane Warner Plaza.

An aspect of the Castro that I really enjoy is the nightlife and the amazing energy it always maintains, no matter what day of the week it is. Walking out of work around midnight on some days, I’ll be immediately rejuvenated by the sounds and the constant excitement people have about this area. There is always something to do, people to meet and new things to see at any time of the day.

Everyone knows the Castro is unique and colorful with its large homosexual population and liberal ideals, but I’ve interacted with a wide spectrum of residents and characters that transcended even my outlook on culture and diversity and managed to keep surprising me. The various contacts I made and people I exchanged ideas with, really exposed my mind to what this neighborhood is about and why people are so attracted to it. Once you engage with people and open yourself up, than people are willing to contribute to anything you show passion for. I only experienced a few unfavorable instances while attempting to interview people, but it wouldn’t be a diverse community if there weren’t those extreme left-wing people that keep the conversation interesting.

Needless to say, Castro has left a lasting impression on me, not only as a young adult navigating through the city life, but as a journalist and the type of reporting that I really feel passionate about. Becoming more aware and knowledgable about the LGBT community and all the amazing organizations that stem from it, has planted a new interest of journalism that I want to explore. It truly is one of the most welcoming, yet progressive areas in the city and continues to constantly influence cultural and social dynamics.

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Ellis Act Evictions: An Epidemic

A graph showing 20 years of Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

A graph showing 20 years of Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

With a stature of over 6-feet, a soft-spoken demeanor and the perseverance that has battled AIDS for the last 12 years, 63-year-old Jeremy Mykaels would never give a landlord any reason for eviction. Unfortunately, not even being a disabled senior can save a tenant from an Ellis Act eviction and being forced out of their home.

San Francisco supervisors are considering declaring a State of Emergency over what they claim is an epidemic number of rising Ellis Act evictions, according to a CBS report earlier this fall. In the past year, landlords filed 1,757 eviction notices with the city, compared to 1,395 in the previous year, marking a twelve-year high. Within those evictions, nearly 200 of them were Ellis Act evictions, almost doubling from last year. An Ellis Act eviction is a state law that says that landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to “go out of business”. After living in his 460 Noe St. home in the Castro District on a controlled rent, due to his illness and inability to work, for 18 years, Mykaels was given an eviction notice in September 2012 using The Ellis Act.

“A month after they sold the house, the new owners’ lawyers started offering me money to move. Then they demanded that I moved, which I ignored because I wasn’t interested in going anywhere,” said Mykaels while describing his eviction process.

Since all of his health care providers and resources are within walking distance of his Noe Street home and the continuously rising rates for rent, Mykaels knew that moving out wasn’t an option. Instead, he decided to fight back. He made a website to gain support and aligned himself with the small, but mighty organizations around the city that are facing this issue head-on—Eviction Free San Francisco and The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco—to accelerate his pursuit and make sure his voice was heard.

“His fight in general is going to help lots of different people who are fighting the same thing,” said Jennifer Cust, a member of Eviction Free San Francisco. “In the last three years, there have been 97 disabled seniors who were evicted, so it’s happening everywhere. He’s all about trying to help other people, to make this a public issue, which is really inspiring.”

A graphic being used on banners and posters around the city.

A graphic being used on banners and posters around the city.

Eviction Free SF has organized various petitions, call-ins and rallies in effort to help Mykaels’ eviction. It wasn’t until they coordinated A Day of Action rally in front of his house in October, that the public and supervisors started taking note of his situation. Being a private person and dealing with constant fatigue because of his medication, the rally was an exhausting experience for Mykaels, but the lasting effects it left were undeniable.

“I think it’s really important for all of us in San Francisco to join the movement to stop this displacement,” said District 9 supervisor David Campos, who attended and spoke at Mykael’s rally. “We’re all in this together, we’re all connected by what’s happening. You can see that this is affecting the LGBT community. It’s sad that the people who were apart of making San Francisco this welcoming place, can no longer afford to live here.”

This epidemic of displaced tenants is happening everywhere in San Francisco, but the highest rates of evictions are occurring around the Castro, Mission, Potrero and Western Division neighborhoods according to maps displayed by Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. With rent demands soaring through the roof, long-time tenants are forced to move out of the city just to be able to afford rent. Everybody is at risk of an Ellis Act eviction because they can be issued without fault of the tenant, and speculators have shown no mercy in the evictions they dole out. Mission resident and teacher, Sarah Brant opened up about her and her 98-year-old neighbor’s eviction situation and just how brutal new owners can be.

“When you have lived in your home for 50 years and you have a great long-term memory, but your short-term is failing, if somebody removes you from familiar surroundings, they are essentially killing you,” said Brant while explaining her neighbors’ circumstances.

Most tenants don’t win against their Ellis Act eviction because it’s controlled at a state level, so its’ authority has more leverage than a tenant and their lawyer.

“There’s not a lot that we can do locally in terms of the Ellis Act,” explains District 8 supervisor Scott Wiener. “Fundamentally, there needs to be reform in Sacramento of the Ellis Act before we can change anything here.”

Mykaels’ pro-bono lawyer who helped him with this case, Steve Collier from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic was able to find just what they needed to win the eviction. Within the eviction paperwork, Collier found a rent technicality that forced the landlords to throw out the eviction. The discovery of this was lucky and not common among these cases and it unfortunately led Mykaels to unveil shocking information about his past rent.

“I went back through my rent increase history and found out that none of it was correct,” said Mykaels while discussing the result of his eviction. “They (landlords) overcharged me for every rent increase for the last 16 years.”

Finally at ease for the first time after a year in his home that he fought for, Mykaels hasn’t let his guard down in fear of another eviction. For the time being, he’s thankful for the support from the people and community around him he can still call his home.

“It’s not like going somewhere else is such an easy option,” said Mykaels. “I live here because as the one place in America, where as a gay man, I feel at home.”

Sidebar:

            Eviction Free San Francisco has played a vital role in Jeremy’s eviction process, as well as many other tenants around the Bay Area. Their mission statement is, a direct action group, whose mission is to help stop the wave of speculator evictions that have been hitting San Francisco by holding accountable, and confronting, real estate speculators that have been displacing long time San Francisco residents for profit. Their main goal in this epidemic is to be the voice for these evicted tenants and to keep fighting back.

Sarah (Fred) Sherburn-Zimmer, one of the core group members in this all-volunteer, mutual aid, non-profit organizations that was originally Eviction Free Summer earlier this year, explains what they’re really here to do.

“We’re in charge of putting the pressure on landlords and really demanding that they stop. Because this is not an okay business model anymore and we are drawing the line.”

Eviction Free San Francisco's official slogan and artwork by Robert Trujillo for SF Bay Gardian

Eviction Free San Francisco’s official slogan and artwork by Robert Trujillo for SF Bay Gardian

They’re not going to give tenant counseling or legislative advice, Eviction Free is shedding the necessary light on these landlords and creating a militant mass movement locally to stop evictions and then going to stop it at the state level. While working closely with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to conquer this citywide issue head-on, they ask volunteers to come ready to fight.

“We take action and handle the media aspects, like rallies, protests and marches. We get the word out and make people listen because someone needs to,” said Sherburn-Zimmer before their meeting in South Van Ness that they have every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month.

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Nguyen Pham: A Modern City Life

After flying through the air under the blazing sun, 29-year-old Nguyen (pronounced Win) Pham continues to cheer with a smile for the energetic crowd during the 40th Annual Castro Street Fair on Oct. 6. Even after performing for Castro residents that entire afternoon, Pham maintained his genuine spirited enthusiasm throughout an impromptu interview with a fellow San Francisco State University student.

A Campbell, Calif. native and current resident of Diamond Heights with his partner of nine years, Ken Breiten, Pham has solidified his presence in the Castro District through his 12 years on CHEER SF. An all-volunteer, adult cheerleading squad, CHEER SF is a non-profit organization that raises money for AIDS organizations through their performances and rallies all around the city, nation and abroad. After moving in and out of the city for seven years, Pham and Breiten love their new neighborhood and its proximity to the Castro District.

“I enjoy diverse experiences and broadening my horizons, and I think part of that comes from living in different locales,” said Pham, a 29-year-old MBA candidate at SFSU. “I don’t feel limited to the Castro, as much as I love it and I am so welcomed here, I feel like I could be a part of any community in the city.”

Pham didn’t have to endure a difficult “coming out” to his family and friends like so many homosexual men, because of the forward thinking of his parents, who emigrated from Vietnam, and traveled through Europe before settling in the states.

“The whole ‘gay thing’ didn’t even faze them,” explained Pham. “I was just myself and it was never an issue and that supportive spirit helped me be myself in high school and the rest of my life.”

Pham maintained those ambitious qualities through high school to start the first Gay-Straight Alliance club ever at his school with complete support from the staff and students. As an undergraduate majoring in social welfare and psychology at UC Berkeley, Pham turned 18 and was finally able to try out for CHEER SF. CHEER SF is based out of the Castro District and partners with many AIDS and LGBT organizations within the community.

“CHEER SF has afforded me a dynamic and spirited way to channel my philanthropic energy into athletic displays,” said Pham, who’s currently in his twelfth year on the team. “We’re not like any other sports team, we’re fundraisers.”

CHEER SF has been the only cheerleading team to attend and support every year of the Gay Games since 1982, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Pham made his mark on the quadrennial tradition. Pham spent one year prior to the 2010 Cologne, Germany competition to connect with the confederation of the games to create and produce the first ever Gay Games cheerleading competition, which went on to raise nearly $16,000 in donations over just three days, with proceeds going to AIDS organizations in Germany.

“It was a lot of hard work, but when it happened, it was so gratifying to see it all come to fruition and have such great success,” Pham beamed as he described his most memorable moment with CHEER SF.

CHEER_SF_-_Square_Logo

CHEER San Francisco’s official logo

Currently working to complete his MBA with a concentration in sustainable business at San Francisco State University, while working part-time within the program at the downtown campus, Pham hopes to graduate by spring 2015 and start working at a non-profit enterprise that deals with social and economic issues.

“I would like to somehow make a difference in the world, instead of just making tons of money,” explained Pham. “Ideally I want to run my own business one day, or just be working for something I love and care about.”

While bouncing around between school, work and his cheer team, Pham manages to find down time and enjoy the city with his U.S. Army retiree partner. Due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) strike down this past June, Pham just recently received his same-sex military spouse ID that provides him the same benefits as any army wife would have, creating even more opportunities for their futures.

“It definitely came as a pleasant surprise,” said Breiten. “It has affected both of our lives because Nguyen is now entitled to health care and survivor benefits afforded a spouse of a military retiree.”

While being a part of an organization that has “supported the LGBT community for over 30 years and has been in the forefront of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS,” explained Breiten, Pham has been able to fully experience the Castro culture and all of its diversity.

“There are tons of awesome places to go to, but I really enjoy just walking around and people watching,” said Pham while talking about his relationship with the Castro. “I think it’s important to support the local businesses in this community that have given me so much in my life.”

In five years, Nguyen could be anywhere, doing anything as long as it’s something that he feels passionate about and believes in. His love for social philanthropy as the director of communications for CHEER SF and adaptability to the various environments, allow Pham to take any path that comes his way.

“There’s so much of the world that I want to experience and am open to. Wherever I’ll be, I’ll be happy,” said Pham.

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35th Anniversary of Harvey Milk’s Assassination

A candlelight vigil was displayed to honor the 35th Anniversary of the assassination of Harvey milk on November 27th at Harvey Milk Plaza. Following the vigil was a march starting from the plaza to City Hall alongside San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and hundreds of residents.

A few days later, candles remained lit and flowers are added by community members and residents.

A few days later, candles remained lit and flowers are added by community members and residents.

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Castro Murder Case Solved After 23 Years

KRON 4 news station posted the mugshots of the two convicted suspects in Rudiger's murder case.

KRON 4 news station posted the mugshots of the two convicted suspects in Rudiger’s murder case.

The murder of Stephen Rudiger in Castro Valley was finally solved yesterday after convicting his ex-wife, 58-year-old Cheryl Ann Drace and her now ex-husband,  50-year-old William Joseph DeVincenzi of murder. For more information, check out SF Gate’s report: http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/2-charged-in-23-year-old-fatal-stabbing-cold-case-5014484.php

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Rocky the Rollerblader

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Rocky the Rollerblader, which is what he calls himself, is a “self-employed” skater enthusiast that hangs out at the Church and Duboce transit and bicycle junction on a daily basis. Unfazed by the constant flow of peddling bikers through the junction, Rocky skates on while jamming out to his classic rock & roll music on his disc man. The linear design of the area allows him to pick up speed and practice his turns and he doesn’t seem to mind the aggravated bicyclists that speed by him.

“It’s a nice spot to skate,” Rocky simply said. “I come here every day, people know me. I just like to skate.”

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