Mission Creek Senior Community Celebrates 15th Anniversary

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Mission Creek Senior Community’s residents are celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of their Fourth and Berry streets home. Mercy Housing owns and manages the 139 rental units, affordable for very low-income people aged 62 and up. 

San Francisco Public Library’s Mission Bay Branch, 960 Fourth Street, around the corner from the senior community’s residential entrance, 225 Berry Street, is part of the complex. The library and main edifice are distinguishable by different facades and floor levels when seen from the opposite bank of Mission Creek, which flows by out back, and whence the building derives its name.  

Mission Creek Senior Community was developed by affordable housing developer Mercy Housing California, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Department of Public Health, and the Public Library. The space that accommodates the branch library was turned over to the City after it was completed. Scenic views can be taken in from comfy chairs.

“We opened March 28, 2006,” Jose Vega-Boza, Mission Creek Community’s senior property manager, said of the rental housing. “The official celebration was October 10, 2006, when we cut the ribbon. By then the building was 100 percent occupied.” 

Gloria Hernandez, an octogenarian known to decorate her walker with signs for her local candidate of choice during election season, was the last of the original occupants to move in. She had the honor of applying scissors to ribbon with then-Mayor, now-Governor, Gavin Newsom.

“He came to my apartment,” she recalled as a highlight of the occasion.

Many inhabitants are frail; some have disabilities or HIV/AIDS; others were homeless before being placed in Mission Creek Senior Community. SteppingStone operates an Adult Day Health Center onsite, open to all San Franciscans.

“Housing equals health,” Vega-Boza said. “Imagine yourself being on the street every day, in the rain, the weather, without any proper nutrition, people right next to you. If you find housing, you get stabilized. Having a roof over your head and walls next to you is very important, and also having a community if you need anything. Some of the HIV-positive people have been here 15 years because they’re taking care of themselves, they’re taking their medication, and most important, they have housing.” 

In the lobby, residents watch for their taxis or paratransit vehicles in a busy seating area. Front desk clerks greet visitors. When the weather’s nice, residents sit outside, some in wheelchairs or walkers, soaking up sunshine and greeting passersby. 

“We’re a very tight community,” Vega-Boza said. “A lot of neighbors here check on each other, pass a plate of food between units. If they don’t see a neighbor, they alert the front desk. People have an electronic key so we’re able to see from the front desk when the electronic key was last used, and if we call and they haven’t picked up the phone, we’ll knock on the door to see if they’re okay. If anyone needs medication from Safeway, one of us will go pick it up and bring it to the resident, so the resident doesn’t have to go out.” 

Residents can hire their own caregivers. Mercy Housing case managers provide support if needed. When an inhabitant required medical tests at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, a case manager spent half a day accompanying them. 

“We treat everyone with justice and respect,” Vega-Boza said. “I tell staff to treat them as if they were their grandmother or auntie, grandfather, uncle.” 

Some folks have family who visit frequently, others haven’t seen relatives since striking out on their own. Places of origin extend from San Francisco, across the United States, and to foreign countries. 

While socializing was restricted during the pandemic, activities like quilting have brought residents together across languages. Cantonese, Spanish, English, Russian, Tagalog, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and lesser-known Chinese dialects mingle at Mission Creek Community. Staff know many tongues, including American Sign Language. 

“People are pretty good at understanding and trying to communicate. I’ve been here 15 years and I never remember a time I wasn’t able to get a point across,” Vega-Boza said. 

Mission Creek Community apartments are secured by referral; the building doesn’t have a wait list. Those exiting homelessness are transferred by the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s Direct Access to Housing (DAH) program based on need and readiness for independent living; 51 units are reserved for DAH recipients. The San Francisco Housing Authority, now chartered by the State of California, sends Section 8 clients that’ve been on that agency’s wait list for years when one of 78 apartments designated for these tenants becomes available. Entry points for the remaining 10 units, set aside for HIV-positive people, include the Shanti Project, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.

Singles or couples are eligible at 20 percent or 50 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). Based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2021 AMI table for San Francisco, 20 percent of AMI is $18,650 for one person, $21,300 for two; 50 percent is $46,650 for individuals, $53,300 for a pair. Rent is 30 percent of income, usually Social Security Insurance. It’s recalculated annually to reflect income changes, and currently tops out at around $800 a month. To help with tight budgets, Meals on Wheels delivers daily; San Francisco-Marin Food Bank bring groceries weekly. 

Average stays are seven or eight years, Vega-Boza estimated. Many founding members, as he fondly calls those such as Hernandez who first inhabited the building, still live there after 15 years. 

“Some people go to a nursing home, because their disability worsened. That’s one reason people leave. And a lot of people die here. Some of the residents come here and say this is their last home; they want to pass away here,” Vega-Boza said, emphasizing here. 

Often terminally ill or elderly individuals prefer to remain in their apartment rather than be moved to a hospital. In keeping with the nonprofit’s name, Mercy Housing’s staff support these end of life wishes. Hospice workers or family members can be authorized for live-in care after a background check. Allowing a person this final dignity is significantly less costly to taxpayers than hospitalization, Vega-Boza said. 

One resident’s final wish was to see Mission Creek as he passed away. Staff brought a recliner to his room and placed it by the window, where he could gaze upon the peaceful waterfront setting when his time came.

Vega-Boza gathers mementos of the departed to send to friends or relatives. A necklace, Bible, cross, photographs, a painting by the deceased are among items he’s returned, along with the person’s ashes. In one case it was a rock with “peace” inscribed on it, sent to a daughter who hadn’t seen her father since she was seven. 

“Sometimes, there’s no one to claim their remains. The City has to take over,” he said.

The facility didn’t have any COVID-19 cases. “Zero. Not one COVID case,” Vega-Boza reported. 

Mercy Housing leases three ground floor commercial spaces on Berry Street, occupied by Philz, Mission Bay Optometry, and Mulberry’s, a shuttered dry cleaner. Philz brewed java to go throughout the pandemic. Since the City largely reopened regulars have returned to the corner sidewalk café. 

Mission Bay Library reopened in May for limited in-person service from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Browsing in designated areas is allowed. Visitors can open a library account; photocopy, scan, print, and fax documents; pickup holds, check out and return items; and use a public computer by reservation.

“We are happy to offer some library services again and welcome the community back inside,” said branch manager Melanie McCallum. 

In the before times, mothers and nannies with tots in strollers lined up around the corner past Philz’s for the library’s children’s offerings. Five Storytimes programs a week attracted about 1,000 visitors a month. Adult programs, held about twice weekly, included a bi-monthly book group that met virtually during the public health crisis, workshops, yoga and meditation classes.

Programs are offered in the Creek Room, which hosts public assemblies, accessible from the library, main building, and creekside promenade. On election day the room serves as a polling place for precinct 7643. Over the years, a few building occupants have been poll-workers, most notably Mr. H., a Mandarin-speaking gentleman who toiled there for at least a dozen elections. 

When the Creek Room reopens for post-pandemic gatherings, visitors will once again see an exquisite quilt hanging on a wall, made by residents in a six-month project under the guidance of two longtime volunteers. It was dedicated in honor of Black History Month in 2019. A miniature American flag is sewn into the upper left corner, a Gay Freedom rainbow flag in the lower right. African symbols for freedom, peace, harmony, the power of love, the universe, energy and adaptability fill the center. Hearts, the California poppy and Earth Day icons are stitched into a patchwork of vibrant colors made from repurposed clothing from former Mercy residents and other fabric. It’s embellished with glass beads, handsewn embroidery and buttons. Most of the quilt was done by hand in the multi-use room on the second floor.

“They got together once a week talking, sewing,” Vega-Boza said. “They talked about what love means; what ability means. It was done with a lot of compassion and love.” 

Two more quilts hang from walls on the second floor.  One commemorates Juneteenth with a solitary black figure raising heart, face and arms in an upper backbend toward the title of the hymn known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” The other memorializes community members who’ve passed away. Above a field of tulips and a lone dragonfly, a kaleidoscope of butterflies flutters off the quilt’s white background onto the wall around it. A printout in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Russian next to it reads, “These butterflies represent residents who lived at Mission Creek that have passed away since 2006. We are remembering them, honoring them, they will always be with us.”

It’s a tradition to begin preparing in March for an anniversary celebration in October. 

“One year, a chorus from the building sang in Cantonese. They practiced six months!” Vega-Boza said. 

Normally, the event features food and sweets, speeches and music in the spacious second floor dining room. Like other events in 2020 it was canceled due to the coronavirus.

“On some occasions we’ve had lion dancers come and dance around the building,” he added.

The fifteenth jubilee this fall will be different than previous large indoor gatherings, Vega-Boza said, possibly with festivities in October or November taking place in the courtyard. Residents began writing poems in April during National Poetry Month on the theme of “home.” They’re dropping off their work at the front desk, to be collected into a book, a way to collaborate creatively while staying distanced in their rooms.  

Top: Ribbon cutting ceremony, October 10, 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Creek Senior Community