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Why my former student needs Prop C to pass

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“Roger,” a homeless San Francisco resident, stands for a portrait on Market Street in some new clothes on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

On Guard column header Joe

I’ve got a confession, dear readers: This last year I’ve felt helpless to help a homeless friend.

But Proposition C has given me a second wind.

Aimed at taxing the richest companies in San Francisco, the much-debated measure known as Our City, Our Home would see as much as $500 million flow annually to homeless services in The City. About 4,000 homeless people could be sheltered.

But while much of the debate has been theoretical, I asked Coalition on Homelessness organizer Sam Lew, who is leading the Prop. C effort, to lead me through how it would help on the individual level.

I wanted her to tell me how it would help Roger, my former student who now calls the streets home.

In another life, I was an artist-in-residence at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, molding young minds with video editing skills. During my tenure from 2005 to 2013, I met “Roger” (not his real name), a gifted student and young filmmaker who hailed from the Inner Richmond District. I knew him during his awkward puberty, listened to his mother’s lament when he struggled with suicidal thoughts and smiled during his sweetest artistic successes.

Roger was talented. His films were dark, provocative, fantasy-laden journeys students enjoyed at our film festival, “Media Nite.”

A photo hanging in my apartment hallway captured Roger, smiling the smile of an enthusiastic teenage boy, holding aloft the logo we made for our Media Department. In that way, I see him every day.

But when I saw him in the flesh in 2016, I hardly recognized him. His eyes were sunken, his skin ashen. The 24-year-old had been sleeping just outside Rossi Pool in the Inner Richmond, just a stone’s throw from his childhood home.

The vents there provided warmth, he said.

Growing up in San Francisco I have always had homelessness on the brain. No one I knew, no one I loved, would ever reach that point, I’ve thought to myself many times when seeing a fellow human laying wrapped in rags on Powell Street, or Market, or Lombard.

How wrong I was.

And you would think that as a journalist I’d be one of the best-connected people in all of San Francisco to help a homeless friend. I could text message the Board of Supervisors, homeless experts, hell — in a pinch — even the mayor, any day of the week.

Spoiler alert: none of that helps a damn.

The resources just aren’t there. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.

Two years ago I tried my damnedest to get Roger into transitional age youth housing. He was refused, for the simple fact that he’d turn 25 midway through his care and become ineligible. “Transitional age” ends the very moment you’re no longer 24.

That very first barrier for Roger is one Lew told me would be tackled. Twenty percent of Prop. C funding is specifically earmarked for youth, and that includes transitional age youth between 18 and 24 — which may see the pressure on “older” youth clients relieved.

Youth services have “been historically underfunded,” Lew said. And, she added, youth providers are looking at solutions to ease the care transition from youth services to adult services. “With more resources, we could do something like that,” she said.

When that avenue to help Roger failed, and we were at our most desperate, another one of Roger’s teachers and I spent 12 hours overnight in the UC San Francisco emergency room trying to get him psychiatric care. Roger even tried refusing help, initially, as he became wracked with anxiety. Heaven forbid he was on his own: Roger is bipolar, and it was his struggle to stay medicated that led him to become homeless in the first place. Without proper care, he has been a danger to himself, and others.

Roger was eventually transferred to another hospital, which ultimately could only give him care for a grand total of two weeks.

That wait would be a thing of the past with Prop. C funding, Lew said.

“One of the reasons your student could get that medical evaluation is because you waited with him for 12 hours,” she told me. “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t get that same help.”

As much as $75 million annually would go toward mental health and addiction resources under Prop. C.

Hospitalization did help Roger get back on his medication. We all felt waves of relief. After we ate our own Thanksgiving meals, my mother, brother and I (Joy, Jon, and Joe, respectively) packed stuffing, turkey and mashed potatoes into a container and brought them to Roger at the hospital. By late November 2016, he was more stable and lucid than he’d been in months. He ate with relish. We talked movies and comic books. We all had hope.

That hope was foolish, I later learned.

Relieved of his anxiety, blissfully stable, he moved in with his grandmother, until she developed a medical condition and had to move out of state.

But left to his own devices, Roger stopped taking his medication. He was homeless, right back where he started. Roger turned to alcohol to numb the experience. His feet became swollen until he could no longer walk. A cut to his foot led to him being hospitalized yet again.

Surgeons amputated a chunk of Roger’s leg to treat him.

Lew said those in Roger’s situation may not ever hit the street should Prop. C pass. It would provide rental assistance for homelessness prevention. Alcoholism and other addiction services would also be boosted and additional shelter provided in the measure would also help addicts recover more quickly.

Right now, Lew said, “you’re asking someone to go through recovery and getting sober,” but “people know that if you exit without housing they’re likely to use again.”

Again on the street and seeking food, Roger faced a dilemma — lining up for temporary shelters often requires people to get in line at 2 p.m. to wait hours for a coveted bed. That means you can’t get in line for free dinner at Glide Church, or any number of other free food options in the Tenderloin.

So Roger dined and dashed at restaurants, and eventually landed in San Francisco jail. Now he’s out, and roughly an hour after writing this column I will see him again. All I can do, really, is buy him a cheap cell phone, a monthly bus pass, some new clothes and dinner. The shelter waitlist is more than 1,000 people long right now, a 4-5 week wait for a 90-day cot. That’s perhaps the most pernicious burden Prop. C would address, Lew said. That waiting list would no longer exist, and my former student would find solace, even temporarily.

But Prop. C has not yet passed. The City’s ballots have not yet been tallied.

Out of jail and out of options, with a brain swinging from lucid to addled, Roger will no doubt spend tonight in the cold.

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