A homeless man’s death on the streets leaves his family looking for answers

The son and daughter of David Rodrigues Jr. had not seen their father for several years before his death in San Franciso. (Photo courtesy Jeanette Hernandez)

The son and daughter of David Rodrigues Jr. had not seen their father for several years before his death in San Franciso. (Photo courtesy Jeanette Hernandez)

For most of their childhood, David Rodrigues III and his sister Jeanette Hernandez were raised by their mother in San Francisco and Santa Rosa after their parents divorced. From time to time, Hernandez and Rodrigues would visit their dad, David Rodrigues Jr., who remarried. But they lost touch with him over the years.

The last time Rodrigues saw his father was about a decade ago, he said.

“I don’t know what happened or if he got depressed in life …,” said Rodrigues, 38. “I can’t figure out why he made his choices. It’s always a mystery to me.”

Those choices may remain a mystery for Rodrigues. On June 25, the family was notified that their 64-year-old father, who had become homeless, had died on the streets of San Francisco.

Police have said there was no foul play and that the Medical Examiner’s Office has determined the death was due to natural causes. But the family has been attempting to retrace David’s steps and learn more about what led to his death.

“It was very unexpected and we have a lot of unanswered questions,” Jeanette, 40, said. “It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions.”

Looking for answers

Rodrigues, who retrieved his father’s personal property from the medical examiner, said a bank receipt showed that on June 24 after 9 p.m., David withdrew $100 from the Bank of America ATM on Powell street.

Before David’s death, a homeless man noticed that he was sitting in a planter box on 17th and Wisconsin streets, in front of Big Daddy’s Antiques store at Potrero Hill, said Rodrigues, who spoke to the man after his dad’s passing.

“He asked my father if he was OK,” Rodrigues said. “And my dad responded ‘yes.’”

Later, Jesus Olivieri, who lives in the homeless encampment nearby, noticed that David had sunken in the planter box. As David was unresponsive, Olivieri said he went back to the encampment for extra help and a flashlight. He then returned to the scene along with the man who had also spoken to David earlier.

“We couldn’t pull him out,” Olivieri said. “We actually had to lean the planter box over and pushed him out. There was no breathing.”

While Olivieri made his way back to the encampment to grab his phone and called 911, he said the other man performed chest compressions on David.

On June 25, medics arrived on scene at 1:08 a.m. and began conducting CPR, according to the Fire Department. Police officers then responded at about 1:19 a.m., and David was declared deceased by medics who were at the scene before they arrived, police said.

Olivieri said that neither he nor the other man knows what happened to David’s personal belongings, but that nobody went through his pockets.

“We were all worried about [this] guy who we don’t even know,” he said. “No one around there knows him.”

Rodrigues said it is possible that his father had spent the $100 retrieved from the ATM. But the whereabouts of his father’s cell phone raised alarms.

“We tried calling the number,” Jeanette added. “Somebody answered and they didn’t say anything.”

Death on the street

David’s family are not the only ones contending with the loss of a homeless family member. The number of deaths among people who are unhoused has burgeoned during the pandemic. According to the Department of Public Health, 50 homeless people died in The City from March 30 to May 24 alone, an average of about six deaths weekly compared to nearly three per week in 2019.

Since 2016, close to 70 percent of homeless residents who have died had neither stayed in a shelter nor the Navigation Center in the 12 months before their deaths, according to a city report last year.

The report shows that more than half of the deaths resulted from accidents such as unintentional overdoses and car accidents. Overdose deaths linked to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever, have soared in The City over the last year, officials said. The Department of Health has ramped up its efforts by distributing medications like naloxone to reverse overdoses and buprenorphine to treat those with opioid use disorder.

About 30 percent, like David, died of natural causes, 11 percent by murder and 4 percent of by suicide.

Something to remember him by

“We want to find if he had a homeless tent anywhere and if he has any property — anything we can find to remember him,” David Rodrigues said. “We’re hoping to find out exactly what happened.”

His stepsister, Joanna Antoinette Rodrigues who was raised by David, remembered David as the best mechanic in San Francisco — people would line up for him to repair their cars, she recalled.

“He was a loving dad. He had his issues: He was abusive to my mother and his ex-wife at some point in time,” said Joanna, 35. But “My father never ever doubted to show his love for his kids.”

The last time Joanna spoke to her father was in 2018, when she called to wish him a happy Father’s Day. By that time he had left home and lived on and off the streets.

“And he said: ‘Oh man, you don’t even know — you just made my day. I didn’t even think any of my kids thought of me or would even call me.’” she said.

“Despite all his mess ups, his drug habits and everything, he was a good dad,” Joanna continued. “I have so many good memories about my dad — camping, going to birthday parties, I remember Fourth of July [celebrations] with my father.”

The story has had additional information added to it since its print publication.

nchan@sfexaminer.com

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