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History of alleged stabber killed by SFPD sheds light on issues within homeless shelters

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Security camera footage provided by Subway and shared at a town hall meeting in May shows Nicholas Flusche, top, advancing with a knife inside the restaurant before he was fatally shot by a police officer. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The Texas man who was shot and killed by a police officer in May after attacking a Subway employee had been staying at a homeless shelter and was acting so strangely that he frightened his bunkmate, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Nicholas Flusche was fatally shot by San Francisco police Officer Kenneth Cha on May 3 inside a Subway restaurant at 940 Market St. after he was seen by foot patrol officers allegedly stabbing a Subway employee. After his death, little was known about when and why Flusche, 26, came to The City.

Flusche had been staying at The Sanctuary, an emergency shelter operated by Episcopal Community Services on Eighth and Howard streets, but was reportedly acting abnormally. His bunkmate, Elias Santos, said Flusche had been staying at The Sanctuary for about a month before his death and had frightened him on more than one occasion.

“He talks to himself,” said Santos, 47. “The guy’s different. He’s different. He’s not, like, normal.”

Phillip Flusche, Nicholas’ father, said the family was unaware of his son suffering from any mental illness and that the circumstances of his death did not align with his normal behavior.

“He was a good guy,” said his father in a phone interview from Decator, Texas. “He didn’t have an enemy. … The people I talked to at the shelter said he was very nice, kind and pleasant. He was never diagnosed with anything of the sort.”

After Nicholas Flusche’s death, during a memorial at the shelter, Santos remembered thinking, “That could have been me.” He said he is often afraid at the shelter because of people he believes are mentally unstable and that staff members do not seem to notice.

“The question is, who will tell the people at Episcopal Services?” Santos asked. “They need trained people to ID and support people.”

Amy Farah Weiss, founder and director of the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge, an outreach organization, said strange behavior is an all-too-frequent occurrence at shelter.

“This is a worst-case scenario,” Farah Weiss said. “In its current state, the shelter system seems more dangerous to some encampment residents than sleeping with their peers. … This is indicative of why there is that fear.”

Flusche comes to San Francisco

Nicholas Flusche reportedly came to San Francisco in August 2015. Phillip Flusche said his son had always wanted to visit The City and that he’d been given a one-way ticket by his former employer after he lost his job at a South Texas security company.

Phillip Flusche only found out his oldest son had come to California when his bank called to report suspicious activity on his son’s account. When his son called and asked for a plane ticket home, Phillip instead offered a bus ticket, which Nicholas refused.

“I was on the standard of tough love,” his father recalled. “So I gave him room, but I don’t know if he was unhappy with me because I didn’t put him on an airplane.”

At the time of his son’s death, Phillip Flusche hadn’t spoken to Nicholas in a year and a half, though they emailed on birthdays. Phillip said he learned from a friend that his son spent his time walking The City’s streets and seeing sights. But for the most part, he didn’t know what Nicholas was up to.

“There’s not a whole lot of information I can give you,” he said. “I understand he had a case worker, so he was getting help.”

As far as Phillip Flusche knew, his son never had an apartment or a phone. But Nicholas did have a P.O. Box and $250 in food stamps.

As of late October, Nicholas Flusche was working at Cafe 5 inside the Museum of Modern Art, according to his family and cafe employees. It’s unclear why he left the job and at what point he began living in a shelter.

When Phillip Flusche learned that his son had been killed by a police officer after allegedly attacking a man at Subway, he couldn’t believe it.

“It just did not make sense,” he said.

Mental health services

It’s unclear what motivated Nicholas Flusche’s allegedly unprovoked attack. Police often deal with people acting erratically, and there’s no concrete evidence that Flusche had mental health issues.

The size of the problem is illustrated, at least in part, through the sheer numbers; San Francisco police respond to roughly 4,000 mental health hospitalizations a year.

Of the some 6,500 homeless people in San Francisco, 35 percent self-reported some sort of mental health issue in the 2015 biannual point-in-time survey. And while there are a number of mental health services provided by the Department of Public Health and numerous nonprofits, that patchwork can’t mandate treatment.

District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the area of the alleged attack and fatal police shooting, said there aren’t enough resources.

“I don’t believe we have enough mental health services for individuals, homeless or not,” Kim said in a text message. “This is a tragic story for all individuals involved — the Subway employee, the officer and Mr. Flusche.

“Prisons and shelters don’t solve mental health crises and prevent these incidents,” Kim continued. “In fact, our shelters don’t have capacity or training to serve mental health issues. Next month, the 24[-hour] medical respite shelter for homeless individuals will open and I’m hopeful it will make a dent in addressing this issue.”

Ken Reggio, executive director of Episcopal Community Services, which runs The Sanctuary and is partially funded by The City, said they have a nine-person behavioral health team who try their best to provide services. But with 4,500 individuals passing through their shelter system each year, they can only handle about 350 people annually in their caseload. And these people can neither be turned away, nor forced to accept treatment.

“There are many people who are experiencing mental health challenges [and] are not being treated by that team,” Reggio said, adding that he understands those folks can frighten away people in need.

To really meet the needs of those people, according to Reggio, smaller shelters with more staff are needed. As it stands, there is a more than 1,000-person waiting list for a bed in one of The City’s shelters.

“I think there are people who don’t want to come inside because they are not feeling comfortable around other people who have challenges,” he said.

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