The Homeless

Exclusive: Inside a Sacramento hotel where elderly face roaches, bedbugs and broken elevators

Bedbugs. No water. Broken elevators. See the living conditions inside Capitol Park Hotel

Elderly residents say they are struggling with bedbugs, fleas, no water and broken elevators at the Capitol Park Hotel on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. "We are getting to the point where it's almost unlivable," said George Green, 76.
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Elderly residents say they are struggling with bedbugs, fleas, no water and broken elevators at the Capitol Park Hotel on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. "We are getting to the point where it's almost unlivable," said George Green, 76.

David Nelson woke up Aug. 26 with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Both elevators at the Capitol Park Hotel in downtown Sacramento were out of service. Nelson, 75, who suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung disease that makes breathing difficult, had to get to an important doctor’s appointment.

His only choice was to traverse the steep winding stairs from his small but tidy third-floor room in the single-room occupancy hotel.

“By the time I got down there, I was so short of breath,” Nelson said. “Then I came back and had to walk up the stairs.”

Two days later, the roughly 75 residents still at the hotel lost water after several pipes burst. Hotel staff advised residents – many of whom are elderly or disabled – to walk a block away to the Hotel Berry to use the bathroom. But with the elevators still down, Nelson didn’t want to do that.

David Nelson, 75, says he suffers from COPD and emphysema and since the elevator is out of order at the Capitol Park Hotel he isn’t able to go up and down the six flights to get his meals, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Sacramento. “Getting up and down the stairs is very difficult for me. I run out of breath and its hard to get back to normal,” said Nelson. He said the elevators have been out since Sunday and he was told to use the restrooms at the Hotel Berry. The water was restored after about 26 hours. Renée C. Byer

City officials say a temporary homeless shelter will open at the hotel this month, but the harsh conditions inside the 107-year-old historic building across the street from the state Capitol suggest housing officials have much work left before it can be converted into a full-service shelter. The shelter was originally supposed to open in July.

The city of Sacramento has approved spending $23 million to open and operate the shelter into next fall. The city expects to be reimbursed by Mercy Housing for about $13 million after the shelter closes.

While the remaining residents wait to be relocated, they say conditions have worsened. Of the seven residents The Sacramento Bee interviewed, all said they started to notice conditions worsening after mid-July, when Mercy Housing bought the property and leased it to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Some rooms are infested with bedbugs, the air conditioning is barely functioning and a roach infestation has worsened, residents said.

“I lived here 15 years and I’ve never had these kind of problems,” Nelson said, referring to the water and elevator issues.

SAC_RCB_20190829_CAPITOLPAR_2 (2)
Jimmy Garlin, 72, talks about a room full of mattresses and the bedbug infestation at the Capitol Park Hotel on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Sacramento. He says when people complain the dispatchers drag a mattress from one of these store rooms. “I don’t think it’s a new mattress,” said Garlin. Renée C. Byer

The water was restored to the building around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, SHRA spokeswoman Angela Jones said, about 26 hours after residents told The Bee it was turned off.

The main elevator needs a motor and will be down for about another week, Jones said. There is a secondary elevator that is also out of order, but staff can turn it on for disabled residents who are unable to use stairs, Jones said.

Nelson would have to walk down a long hallway and walk up a flight of stairs to access that elevator, said Jimmy Garlin, another resident who’s familiar with the unique configuration of the old hotel.

When Councilman Steve Hansen heard from a Bee reporter about the water and elevator issues Thursday afternoon, he notified the city fire marshal and building inspector, neither of whom knew of the problems, he said. City staffers quickly responded, and Hansen joined them, he said.

“My job is to protect my residents, regardless of who owns the building, whether SHRA or anyone else. If there’s not functional water for drinking and showering, then the building needs to be immediately fixed or temporarily closed and people need to be moved out until it can be fixed,” Hansen said. “The council provides an oversight role. I will continue to perform my job ensuring that they (SHRA and its contractors) do their job.”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg echoed the promise.

“Capitol Park Hotel is an older building, and it’s not surprising that issues would arise with the pipes and other building systems,” Steinberg said in a statement Friday. “That being said, we need to make sure the building is safe and habitable for both existing residents and those moving into the shelter. I’ll be working closely with SHRA and Council member Steve Hansen to make sure it is.”

Hansen, who represents downtown, proposed opening a homeless shelter at the hotel in response to a call to action from Steinberg, who challenged all eight council members to find room in their districts for at least 100 new shelter beds.

Irene Henry, the longtime former owner of the hotel, sold it to Mercy Housing to be renovated into 130 permanent housing units, along with services to assist formerly homeless residents, such as employment training, education and other behavioral services. She learned about the plan for a homeless shelter from a Bee reporter in April.

The City Council in April voted to convert the hotel into a temporary shelter before renovations begin in fall 2020 for the apartment project. In July, Henry sold the building to Mercy Housing, which entered into a lease with SHRA. Henry’s eight employees were replaced with staff from The John Stewart Company, which SHRA hired as a property manager. That company, based in San Francisco, has a Sacramento office, but did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Henry, who still owns a market and bar underneath the hotel, stood on the sidewalk Thursday as residents complained.

“Even if an elevator went down at midnight, I’ve called the elevator company,” Henry said. “I had to pay double time. I had no problem with that. I would not leave it sitting with two elevators out, knowing the people upstairs cannot get up and down. It’s bad. I do not like what’s going on, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

On Thursday afternoon, with temperatures in the 90s, hotel residents lugged packages of bottled water up to their rooms, where air conditioning inside the musty units was barely working, if at all.

Jones said workers accidentally cut an electrical wire that caused some units to lose air conditioning on Aug. 23, but that power was restored Wednesday and affected residents were given fans.

As the hotel is converted into a shelter, residents will be given assistance in finding and paying for new housing, SHRA officials said.

So far, at least 15 have moved out without assistance. George Green, 76, plans to do the same. He’s going to a veterans senior facility in the Bay Area. He wants a rebate for some of his August rent, which is $575 per month.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” Green said as he climbed the steep stairs to his room. “I thought we would be in a better situation with these new people coming in. Seems to me what they’ve done is create a new homeless.”

George Green, 76, shows his filthy non-working sink in his bathroom at the Capitol Park Hotel on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Sacramento. “I thought we had a better situation with these new people coming in. Seems to me what they are doing is creating a new homeless. It’s like a solution looking for a problem,” said Green. The hotel will become a temporary homeless shelter in September, then will be renovated to become apartment units. Renée C. Byer

The hotel was not without issues when Henry ran it. There were bedbugs and roaches, but workers came weekly to spray for them, said Garlin, 72.

After the new owners took over, the spraying became less frequent, Garlin said. Garlin always had a bedbug problem, but it’s gotten worse with the new owners, he said. A notice was posted to his door Thursday saying that people would come to spray, but they never showed, he said Friday.

“I gotta spray my sheets with alcohol, I gotta spray my pajamas, and I still can’t get a decent sleep,” Garlin said.

Jimmy Garlin, 72, sprays for bedbugs that have infested his bed at the Capitol Park Hotel on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Sacramento. “It’s like an invasion. Its very difficult. I have to spray myself and the sheets with alcohol to get any kind of rest,” he said. There was blood on his pillow from the bugs biting him in his sleep. Renée C. Byer

Down the hall is a room full of mattresses stacked to the ceiling. He said those mattresses are infested with bedbugs. Other rooms are flooded, Garlin said. Workers were painting and renovating a handful of units Thursday.

Even with promises from Steinberg and Hansen, Garlin worries conditions will continue to worsen.

“I just have to go by their behavior and it’s been incompetent,” Garlin said. “So I have very little faith in them.”

Staff photographer Renee C. Byer contributed to this report.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.