Don't turn your back on San Francisco's homelessness and drug problems

·7-min read
A person wearing a jacket with the hood up sits on the sidewalk with his back against a building.
A homeless person in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

At 10:30 on a cold February night in 2019, I began my graveyard shift in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. It was just my second month at a new job working with homeless people who were being housed in single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the down-and-out part of town, and my second gig since being released from state prison after serving 23 years for an armed robbery committed when I was 21 years old.

As my shift began, a co-worker called to say he had encountered a likely sign of trouble — a locked shower stall door in one of the bathrooms at a community center being used by the homeless.

Armed with four packages of Narcan, a drug that when squirted up a person’s nostrils reverses the effects of heroin and opioids, I used a key to open the door and found a naked young man lying on the floor, a hypodermic needle next to him as well as a crumpled piece of tinfoil spilling out a drug in powder form.

After confirming he was not breathing, I administered Narcan for the first time in my life. Getting no response, I began chest compressions, as I’d been trained. Still no response, so I gave him a second Narcan dose, but his body lay motionless. A supervisor arrived and administered three more doses and chest compressions while I gathered the tinfoil and, following the rules established to protect the homeless, flushed the powder down a toilet. Just then the man suddenly revived. Confused, irritated, he began telling us his story.

His name was Taimon and he was 23 years old, he said. His family had kicked him out of their home after he had announced he was gay. Suddenly he found himself living on the streets and soon developed an addiction to heroin.

“I’m trying to fit in,” he told me, “But I can’t shake the demons of family and the streets.”

He talked about his life being locked in a “perpetual cycle,” but he thanked me for helping to save him. “That OD was worse than the others,” he added.

After a childhood spent in South Central Los Angeles watching people I knew get gunned down or addicted to crack, and having logged more than two decades behind bars, it felt good to have learned how to save a life. In fact, that was part of the reason, along with the decent pay, that I took the job in the first place.

A homeless person
A homeless person on the streets of San Francisco. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When I was released from prison, I lived in an apartment in Oakland, Calif., and became friends with two musicians in a unit upstairs. One night I woke up to the sound of their dog barking, but I put a pillow over my head and went back to sleep. In the morning the dog was still barking, even more agitated, and I went up to investigate and found the front door open. Inside I discovered the men lying on their backs, a white foam coming out of their mouths. I called 911, and the operator tried to talk me through how to try to revive them, but I had no training and it was too late anyway. Both had died in the night after taking opioids laced with fentanyl.

When you see death and trauma up close, it shakes you, but it can also make you want to do something to help. Maybe that was the city’s thinking behind hiring the formerly incarcerated to deal with the homelessness problem. Many former inmates are also given free housing in the same SROs — many of which are decrepit and are filled with rats, mice and cockroaches — as a way to help them transition back to life on the outside and keep them from becoming homeless.

Three months into the job, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning, I was transferred to Moscone Center West, where the city was opening an emergency shelter for the homeless. There I witnessed rampant drug use, overdoses, mental illness and violence. Eventually I was assigned to oversee an eight-story SRO, seven floors of which housed about 600 homeless people, a large percentage of whom were addicts, mentally ill or both. I was often the only supervisor on duty at the SRO during my shift, and at first it was exhilarating.

Using Narcan and chest compressions, I helped save 10 lives over the next two years. In fact, I never lost anyone when I was on duty, and knowing that gives me comfort.

But the other parts of my job were less satisfying. I had to write a report for each of the 20 or so incidents that occurred each day. Complaints about cold meals, broken televisions and trashed rooms all had to be documented, and that often meant staying late to fill out paperwork. Interacting with people suffering from mental illness was also difficult, and it got to the point where I didn’t want to go to work because I was so burned out.

The homelessness problem in San Francisco is dire and getting worse. In 2016, the San Francisco Department of Public Health estimated that there were 12,249 homeless people in the city. In 2020, that number had risen to 19,086. The city houses about 6,000 homeless people in SROs, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In 2020 and 2021, at least 166 people died from drug overdoses in those buildings.

Many more homeless people were also dying on the city's streets, and I sometimes found myself rushing to their aid on the blocks that surrounded the SRO where I worked, wondering why nobody else was trying to help.

A homeless person
A homeless person on a San Francisco sidewalk. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That was made worse by the news that Taimon, the first man I’d helped save using Narcan, was being offered a private room in one of the SROs despite having twice been brought back to life after overdosing. It sounded like a terrible idea. Addicts need oversight and care, not doors they can use to close themselves off.

But the city was overwhelmed. Every day, I watched feeling helpless as a network of Honduran immigrants ran a highly organized drug-dealing operation on the streets outside my SRO. They began selling on one corner in front of the building, which attracted more addicts. Soon the Hondurans were selling to the residents I was there to oversee, and the sidewalk was littered with people shooting up and leaving needles behind each day. The police would simply drive by, not bothering to try and arrest anyone. When I complained to an officer, he told me that was just the way it was.

In December 2021, Mayor London Breed announced a crackdown in the Tenderloin district on “all of the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” It sounded good when she said those words, but it’s hard to say whether adding more police and making more arrests will effectively address the problem. By then it was too late for Taimon, who I’d learned had died of a drug overdose inside his private room in early 2020, a year after I’d first encountered him.

Drained and fed up, I decided to quit my job. I needed time to process everything I’d seen over those two years. But I depleted my savings quickly. I was forced to move out of my apartment and started sleeping in my car. In a way, I’m lucky. Some friends have helped me out, and I’m set to start a new job so I can find a permanent place to live.

Given the grim reality of the homelessness crisis in cities like San Francisco, it can be easy to blame those at the bottom for their own bad choices. But a superior attitude isn’t going to solve the problem.

When I worked at the SRO, a few of the residents told me, “You are one missed paycheck away from becoming me.” I see now just how true those words were.

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