James Durgin has been charged with 54 felonies. That’s on top of 104 misdemeanor cases. Judges have ordered him to undergo a dozen mental health evaluations. He’s been represented by more than 40 public defenders, who have represented him against more than 40 assistant district attorneys.
He’s been sent to various jails and rehabs, but always ended up back on the streets of San Francisco. And the forests of the Presidio. He is “the man in the woods,” as some people call him, lurking about and stalking residents late at night.
He’s also the new face of San Francisco’s homeless disaster, the poster child of the NBC Bay Area docuseries “Saving San Francisco,” which tracks Durgin’s journey through drug addiction and homelessness and uses his story as a proxy to discuss the larger societal issues and system failures facing The City.
The first installment of this ambitious work dropped this week, with senior investigative reporter Bigad Shaban, alongside producer Robert Campos, unearthing a story of criminal, judicial and public health neglect that has left most everyone involved in a worse place.
“We came upon this story involving this really quiet, quaint neighborhood in the Presidio. To hear some people tell it, there was a boogie man in the woods,” said Shaban. “This story was emblematic of so much of what San Francisco is struggling with right now. Homelessness. Poverty. Gentrification. Mental health. … The notion of what it means to be safe, or unsafe, in this city.”
Durgin makes quite an entrance in episode one, titled “The Man in the Woods.” The opening sequence shows the majestic beauty of San Francisco’s northwest corner, where a woman named Ann Rea has lived in a rental for the past 15 years. She used to think it was paradise, but now it’s become a nightmare.
That’s because Durgin has been stalking her. Truly scary video footage shows him at her door in the middle of the night, jiggling the door handle and trying to enter. In one shot, he is nude during a 3 a.m. visit.
She’s called San Francisco police more than 50 times over the past five years about Durgin, and got a restraining order against him. But he kept coming back.
“I worry about when I go to sleep at night, if he’ll bust the windows and make it upstairs,” Rea told NBC. “And so I sleep with a taser and a single-blade knife. Every night.”
NBC dug into Durgin’s back story to tell the larger tale. He grew up in Duxbury, Mass. His friends say he was a charismatic classmate, one they expected would one day change the world. He was an English teacher at Woodside Priory, a boarding school in Portola Valley, and once very proud of his sobriety, helping others along that path. But somewhere along the line, things went terribly wrong.
Campos told me, according to court records, you can start finding Durgin’s name in the early 2000s.
A quick look online led me to Durgin’s Facebook page, where you can see a series of demented posts picturing meth pipes and increasingly delusional writing, dated back in 2017. To this day, the man still has 632 friends on the social media platform, and it’s heartbreaking to see his high school classmates begging him to get help in the comments to his posts. A lot of people were rooting for this guy.
None of it seemed to work. Friends, judges, lawyers and social workers couldn’t seem to put Durgin back together again. And that’s why this story is important. Our systems are failing us. How do we fix them?
I asked Shaban what his core takeaways were from the project, which took about a year to report. He’s come to believe the various institutions involved in addressing homelessness, drug addiction and mental health are not communicating well enough. The various silos are not talking to each other, allowing people like Durgin to fall through the cracks, using systems such as San Francisco’s diversionary courts to avoid jail by agreeing to rehab instead. Oftentimes, Durgin would then simply walk out the door.
“He has been in and out of jail for two decades,” said Shaban. “If you just look at the time and money that‘s been dedicated to one man’s journey in the criminal justice system, it’s astonishing. But he hasn’t really been helped by any of this.”
Which leads to the wider issues of accountability and solutions.
“You’re going to hear from a whole long list of public officials,” said Shaban. “You will definitely hear from Chesa Boudin in this piece. We have an exclusive interview with Mayor (London) Breed that was an interesting interaction. The hope is to hold people accountable for what’s happened, and will happen, in San Francisco. There’s no magic potion to fix the city. We hope to give people information to make sense of it.”
I plan to watch the series, which will be streaming every Monday for the next five weeks. In the meantime, the stark reality of San Francisco remains. A man was stabbed and killed on Sixth Street the other day. A woman celebrating at a birthday party with friends and their daughters on Ocean Beach was assaulted with an aluminum can by a mentally ill man, sending her to the hospital with serious injuries. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t see the misery and destruction in our streets.
What do we do about it? Three different developments of note emerged this week.
First, the Coalition on Homelessness released a report Wednesday that showed The City, and its army of nonprofit partners, are not matching up people with effective social services. Specifically, the study targets San Francisco’s “coordinated entry” system, which is supposed to connect candidates with housing, for reform.
“Our current system hides the actual need for housing and other services by telling unhoused people that they are not in need enough to deserve services, “ said Ian James, organizing director at the Coalition on Homelessness. “We need to move away from a system of scarcity if we are going to understand, let alone address, the housing crisis in San Francisco.”
The group goes on to list 35 proposed changes to coordinated entry, emphasizing a shift from “a system of prioritization to a system of targeting individuals to appropriate services.”
Given the recent news that nearly 900 available housing units sit vacant in San Francisco, while the list of approved and unapproved applicants grows, the targeted reforms outlined in this study seem on point. Let’s see if anyone’s listening.
The second development this week involved the unveiling of yet another coalition of homeless service providers, combining private and public interests, calling itself the Urban Vision Alliance. The 32-member group has $7.8 million in its coffers, which isn’t a lot in this town, but it does have an interesting ideological bent.
Instead of solely following the federally encouraged “Housing First” ideology, which promotes getting people into permanent housing as a crucial first step to end homelessness, the group acknowledges transitional housing, combined with a healthy dose of services and other housing solutions, is needed to ease San Francisco’s crisis.
“At the heart of Urban Vision Alliance is a coalition of inspired people who believe street homelessness can be solved; and that we have the land, capital and expertise to do it,” said Gabriel Baldinucci, CEO of Urban Vision Alliance. “UVA’s focus is to bring these stakeholders together to collaborate in new ways to help our fellow citizens experiencing street homelessness and improve our cities.”
The Salvation Army is a big part of the early plans, announcing it will build out 1,500 beds in San Francisco to offer housing and wraparound services.
The group points to San Antonio as a success story, where business and government built a compound of sorts downtown to house homeless people for stretches of two to three years. They believe this kind of transitional housing, coupled with services, works best. It is better, at least, than getting someone into a housing unit and then finding services piecemeal.
Third, and most importantly, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his plan Thursday to overhaul California’s failing mental health system, unveiling an idea he’s calling Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, or CARE Court. The proposal, which needs to pass muster with the state legislature, would create a structure where troubled individuals could be referred to this system before they commit a crime, creating a pathway to county care and services. If the people entering this track cannot complete the programs provided, then there would be a further path toward state conservatorship.
“CARE Court is about meeting people where they are and acting with compassion to support the thousands of Californians living on our streets with severe mental health and substance use disorders,” said Newsom.
Put these three things together, and we may be headed toward the compassionate, common sense solution San Francisco is looking for.
Perhaps that’s what the James Durgins of the world need.
Editor’s note: The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic. explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to email@example.com.