90-year-old starts fund for staff at S.F. living facility

In San Francisco, a city where it seems one must work two jobs to afford an apartment the size of a Buick, the old axiom on obtaining a loan holds painfully true: To get one from a bank, you must first prove you don't need one.

Unfortunately, quite a number of San Franciscans do need loans — and therefore probably can't get them. And even if one is fortunate enough to have a loan approved, high interest rates can often create a stickier financial situation than whatever deficit rendered the loan necessary in the first place.

That's where Ruth Kay Debs comes in. The 90-year-old San Franciscan, a longtime philanthropist as well as a Jewish and civic activist, says she owes her life to the staff of the San Francisco Towers assisted-living facility. She has found a unique way to say thanks — the Ruth Kay Debs Interest Free Loan Fund.

"I had triple bypass surgery and was ill for nine months. When I finally recovered, I realized that I would not have survived without the loving care of not only the nurses but the entire staff," recalled Debs. "The whole staff came to see me and brought flowers and couldn't have been more caring."

So she created the Debs Fund. "This is the way that I can show my appreciation," she said. "Many of [San Francisco Towers' staff] work two jobs. It's expensive to live in San Francisco."

Established in July, the Debs Fund — housed at the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and administered by the Hebrew Free Loan Association — offers interest-free loans of up to $1,500 to the San Francisco Towers' 250-odd employees.

Inaugurated with a $50,000 donation from Debs, the fund has swelled to $75,000 through subsequent donations by other San Francisco Towers residents, said Irwin Wiener, executive director of Hebrew Free Loan.

With repayment timetables as long as three years, payments may be as low as $40 a month.

"The idea is to help them, not to hurt them," Wiener added. "There are four categories of lending: emergency situations, education or vocational training, medical needs and emergency financial assistance for day-care needs.

"Since the fund was recently established, we've given out six loans already."

Indeed, Debs cheerfully states that the fund has been "very active."

One applicant used the loan to pay off school expenses. Another traveled overseas to see his ailing father. One family, drained financially by funeral costs, used a Debs loan to pay off two months' back rent.

"There's one CNA [certified nurse's assistant] on this floor who can now work to be an LVN [licensed volunteer nurse]," said Debs. "People here are going to computer school, using day care and moving. I want to make this fund as active as possible."

When Debs decided to start the fund for San Francisco Towers employees, she approached Phyllis Cook, executive director of the JCEF.

"Ruth had some ideas about what she wanted to do, and I said, 'Let's do this with the HFL,'" said Cook. "With them there's accountability and anonymity. It's the right way to do it and it's been a very successful program."

The Debs Fund's early success has not gone unnoticed. The Los Gatos Meadows retirement and life-care community has already contacted the HFLA in hopes of establishing a similar fund for its employees.

While Debs is pleased that ideas similar to her own are spreading to other assisted-living facilities, she affirmed that her area of interest lies firmly with San Francisco Towers and its employees.

"This is my home, I live here," said Debs. "My interest is in San Francisco Towers, and for me it's an ideal home because of the residents and the staff. It's like a big family; each one cares for the other in the times of need.

"This is my way of caring for them."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.