“Roger” was a student teetering on the edge.
Between 2005 and 2013, I was an artist-in-residence at what is now Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Roger (not his real name) came to our media department filled with ambition to make absurdly creative films. He soon threatened to take his own life.
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Eventually, he appeared to come back from the brink. Now a columnist, I hadn’t thought about Roger in years.
But when I came across him this November, Roger, now 24, helped me see The City’s gaps in support for transitional age youths — support Roger desperately needed.
While I was reporting in the Mission one day, I found myself approached by a tall figure in baggy clothes whom I didn’t recognize.
“Joey?” the figure asked.
I squinted my eyes. “Roger!” I shouted, surprised. Then, I saw the circles around his eyes, the glassy stare, and my happiness turned to alarm.
He’d been sleeping at Rossi Park for three weeks, curled over a vent from the nearby swimming pool for warmth. Roger’s grandmother, with whom he lived, had kicked him out of the house after he refused to take medication to address his bipolar diagnosis. He seemed fuzzy. Distant. He asked for money. I gave him $40, but didn’t offer more help than that. That night, I couldn’t sleep, wracked with guilt.
Thankfully, Roger continued to approach former teachers for money. Two days later, he visited my colleague, Salome Milstead, who still teaches at SOTA. By 5 p.m., the three of us were at UC San Francisco, seeking psychiatric care — a four-hour wait made more bearable only by many magazines and pizza.
At various points in seeking help for Roger, I felt he would have turned back, or been turned away, had he been alone.
Over a slice of ham and pineapple, he told me he didn’t believe in his bipolar diagnosis. “It’s not about what you see,” he told me, “it’s about what you feel.”
By 2 a.m., Roger received two of three needed evaluations. I went home, doggedly tired, and hoped they would arrange for psychiatric care.
Roger was admitted the next day to St. Francis Hospital. He started taking his medication again.
But this was only a temporary fix.
I called Larkin Street Youth Services, one of few local resources for transitional age youth — not quite kids, not quite adults. Their nightly “e-beds” are granted on a lottery basis.
Most promising was their 24-month housing program, “Geary House.” Larkin’s website describes Geary House as “service rich,” offering the support Roger would need to stay on his medications, find a job and maybe go back to school.
The catch? Roger would need to call once a day for four weeks straight to remain on the waiting list.
Worse still, Larkin staff frequently asked me when Roger would turn 24 and six-months old. Because at 25, he would be turned away.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told me this is a common tale.
“We need other kinds of programs that are super easy [to] access,” she said. “‘Low threshold’ is you just show up, and you don’t have to go through rigmarole to get in.”
Many youths, not just locals like Roger, need this help. Countless LGBT youths from around the country flee to San Francisco from homophobic parents, and our foster youths age out of the system.
For Roger, it seemed like we outpaced the many pitfalls rife in the care network. That is, until the day I wrote this column.
I called St. Francis on Tuesday to see how Roger was doing, only to learn he had checked out. From what I heard from his support network, he refused care, and the hospital could no longer hold him.
Now, I have no clue where he is. Or if he needs help. And if so, how.
It’s a helpless, helpless feeling.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.