“To bring a piece of humanity back to people.”
Marriage and Family Therapist, Center for Harm Reduction Therapy

Two peer providers talk about 20 years of a changing San Francisco.

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Mary: I came to this work because I was once a young person, a long time ago, and as a young person I ended up on the streets in San Francisco. I left home at a very young age, and, you know, there were no services I ever engaged with on the street that I felt really accepted me or that I felt safe with. And back in the day when I started we were still part of the free clinic. We were Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach Team, but it was definitely a different model, which was more for and by the youth.

And the youth really kind of drove the services. Look I don't even know how I got roped in, in ‘99. My friend applied for the job for me to be honest. I did not apply for the job, but anyhow, I went on the interview, I got the job. The rest is history-

Maurice: History.

Mary: And then I became the ED and founder of HYA [Homeless Youth Alliance]. I just really fell in love with the work. It was a way for me to be part of a community that I felt was my community, but in a much more productive way for myself and a much more, kind of, empowering way. That kind of role modelled to other young people that long term change is possible, and also being part of righteous action and self determination, and really driving your own future was possible regardless of where you were. And that's really kind of how HYA still operates. The kids sit on all the hiring committees, they volunteer at services, they decide what we should be doing. Most of the time we go along with it. [Laughter] Yeah, so we, yeah.

Maurice: Mind if I ask a question?

Mary: Yeah.

Maurice: What's your idea about how and why drop-ins work? Because, I think you do it in a pretty unique way.

Mary: Yeah. I mean it gets weirder to talk about it now because it's been so long. So we lost our drop-in a little over four years ago. But to me the kind of beauty of a drop-in center is that, if it's run well, in my opinion, it allows people to come in exactly as they are, and to access HYA at any point, and any service, and kind of move in and out of, kind of, readiness and engagement.

Mary: So people can literally, they can come in—and some wouldn't even say hi,—most of the time go directly towards the food because that is people's basic need, is food. They could take a shower, they could put on clean clothes, and those are the really small things—or take a nap on the couch, or just like any teenager, watch shitty tv. The Simpsons was always on. Big Lebowski was a big hit.

Mary: Anyhow, so they got to—we had all these boxes of movies and they could watch whatever they wanted, and it was a really amazing thing that when people had a space to be themselves, that they could make these really amazing changes and kind of take a moment to step back from survival mode. And get into a mode of really evaluating where their lives were at and what they were ready to change about it. It's like Maurice's office was right across from the bathrooms, which is always great right because people—by that point they've eaten, maybe they took the shower, they put the clothes on, then they come out and they're like ready to do something else.

Mary: And then Maurice is there and they're like, I'm gonna go hang out with Maurice or I'm going to go into the case management office and get my birth certificate handled, or just check in with staff. And it was this really amazing place where the community felt at home and there was very little drama considering the amount of drama people have on the street. Everyone really respected the space. It taught the kids how to be more accepting of each other, and how to kind of look out for each other in different ways. We just role modeled how different engagement can look for people. I don't know, what was it like for you?

Maurice: I think you're speaking to what I was hoping you’d get at. It was sort of, it was a culture that you and your staff built.

Mary: Yeah.

Maurice: Yeah.

Mary: Very little rules. We only made rules when-

Maurice: When necessary.

Mary: Something went wrong-

Maurice: Yeah.

Mary: And we had to.

Maurice: That's such a harm reduction philosophy.

Mary: Yeah.

Maurice: You make rules when you need them.

Mary: Yeah. I think our only rule when we opened was no racism, sexism, or homophobia. And then it evolved to 12-

Maurice: Yeah, like don't show your genitals.

Mary: Yeah, don't show your genitals, which I wouldn't think needed to be a rule until it kept happening. [Laughter] Then it became a rule.

Maurice: Then it becomes a rule. [Laughter] My favorite rule.

Mary: You know, like don't touch without permission. That's something you don't really think about but as people learn to set healthier boundaries, that was something people wanted. They were like, “Ah, I actually want to be asked before you go in for a hug, or you just are play fighting.” Because sometimes people are in a different state every day. So, the rules kind of evolved over time.

Maurice: Yeah. Building tolerance with people.

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Mary: Oh how have we seen San Francisco change?

Maurice: Go, you go first.

Mary: I don't know. I have a really hard time, concept of time, and maybe a skewed view, a little bit, because we see the worst of gentrification. I feel like a lot of the time ... But when I got here—when I was a young teen running away from home, found my way to the magical Tenderloin.

Actually to be a little honest, The Tenderloin still, at times, is the only part of San Francisco I recognize, and feel like, I don't know, really comfortable. I think it did used to be this place of opportunity and a place where you could come and build your life. And I think as we're seeing things get so unaffordable that that that's nearly impossible.

Planning with someone how to get off the street in this city is, [Quietly laughs] it's almost really sadly laughable because none of my staff even live in San Francisco, right. None of us can afford to not be homeless and live here, and work here. I definitely think, also, is it's always this ironic thing of the kind of stigma put on poor people. I mean at the crux of why our work gets criticized is really about the people we're working with, right, and that it makes people really uncomfortable to see people suffering and in poverty.

And I think as you see, kind of new San Francisco, which is all people from outside San Francisco, and you're seeing that the amount of people who are living outdoors who come from this city increase dramatically ... I don't want to say it's compassion fatigue because I'm not sure those people ever had compassion, but it's just people come into a city they don't know the history of and want it to be a certain experience for them. When it's like we've been fighting to have our space, and our rights, and to break down stigma, and shame, around where we're at. And that seems to be harder every single year in this city.

Yeah, it just doesn't seem like there's opportunity. And I often think that many people in power positions become more out of touch as that continues to happen, because the constituents, the voices they hear, are not the voices of people who know the history of a city. That was really a city that was this melting pot and collective for not only people who were raised here and from here but also people who came here because of this idea that it was this place of acceptance and opportunity. I don't know. What do you think? Because, you grew up here-

Maurice: Yeah I was-

Mary: And kind of saw it in a different way.

Maurice: Of course gentrification comes to mind. I think it really started in a heavy-handed way with Willie Brown, who was the mayor, when he started shutting down projects, quote unquote, rebuilding them to be mixed income. So there's been a huge black flight out of San Francisco. I don't think I have any of my friends that I grew up with that live here in San Francisco. On another note, I think because of people coming in from other places, and I think they do have this idealized way that they want San Francisco to be and they push really hard to make it that way.

You do see more hostility towards poor folks, in general, and people experiencing homelessness. In a very public and aggressive way sometimes. There's definitely neighborhoods that have completely changed. I walk down Valencia Street sometimes and I'm like, “Where the hell am I?” You walk down 3rd Street sometimes and I'm like, “Where the hell am I?” These were areas that people wouldn't walk through. They wouldn't be ... And now there is. My mother doesn't live here anymore because of this. Because of the amount of money that’s come in after Lee cut taxes for people; it seemed like he was sacrificing families and poor folks to get a lot of money here. And now we're what? We're one of the richest cities in the world but-

Mary: So I hear.

Maurice: Quality of life isn't all that great or a lot of people. It reminds me of Rome. There's just really rich people and really poor folk, people here. And the middle class drives in every 9 to 5 and they go back home to outside of San Francisco. Sad, in a way, to see-

Mary: Sad in many ways.

Maurice: Yeah, yeah, to see how much it's changed over the years and not in really super positive ways for the average Joe. If you're really rich you can live here. Guess what, if you're really poor you can figure out how to live here, too. It may not be a great quality of life ... So, yeah, that's sort of how I see it.

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Mary: Yeah I mean I think the amount of trauma that people experience when they're living on the street has increased so dramatically because of the treatment they receive directly and indirectly. If you look at the narrative of media, it's always “the homeless problem” and not in the way of these people want help, it's we want this for them and they don't want to do it so they're not worthy of being here. And it's just so hateful, I mean, yeah.

Maurice: And it comes down to, and we don't like to talk about this a lot in harm reduction, but it's a moral issue. Even if you think about it from a financial point of view, I just heard that it's something like $80,000 to keep someone on the street and $40,000 to house them. It makes zero sense that you just don't house people instead of paying more, double the amount, for them to be on the streets. Whoever wants housing.

Mary: Right, that's irony right, that the solution to homelessness is simple. It's called housing. It's not that hard to figure out. [Laughs] And there's things that go in with that to keep someone housed but it is really that simple. If someone doesn't have a home, you give them a home.

Maurice: You give them a home. Right.

Mary: It's just like I'm hungry, I eat.

Maurice: Give me some food.

Mary: I have to go to the bathroom, I hopefully get to use one inside. If not I'm going to do it outside because I have to go to the bathroom. They're just these basic human needs that we love to spend years debating: Um do we need housing?

Maurice: Well and then you were saying when folks move in from different places they want this idealized place and these are the folks that are saying get out of my backyard, and I know I just got here but you don't deserve a toilet stool [Laughs], or you don't deserve a house.

Mary: Or a drop-in.

Maurice: Or a drop-in. So it's outright aggression. It's gotten more ugly that way, I think.

Mary: And we've seen increased laws go on the books that clearly only target poor people, if you look at the sit/lie law, which is-

Maurice: Good old Newsom.

Mary: Disproportionately enforced in the Haight.

Maurice: Yeah, because they don't stop us when we sit on the ground?

Mary: Well, we know they stop me because-

Maurice: They stopped you.

Mary: Association, but it's like if you think about, really, how ridiculous that is of like—we made it illegal to sit—

Maurice: To sit down.

Mary: Down. Because I'm actually less threatened by someone who's having a restful moment than someone who's been made to move by the cops 10 times that day and is agitated. And people wonder why that law didn't clean up the streets. I think they thought people would magically get housed. I'm not really sure, but didn't work.

Maurice: Well the message is we're going to be as hostile as we possibly can to you until you leave, or hide somewhere. That's why there's been an increase, in the Haight at least, in police there, and police contact there, because the neighbors are calling a lot, all the time.

Mary: Yeah, they're very organized. But in a city that's seven by seven there's not that many places to hide because everything's been so developed at this point. There used to be these pockets where people could kind of be and exist, and cohabitate, and have community. And I think what you see is gentrification moves up and development moves up, is there aren’t these spaces for people to exist. And so there's not the same sense of community amongst people because people are really isolated.

You can only sleep in really small groups, if groups at all. And that puts people at risk for violence and trauma, and having really traumatic experiences alone, as opposed to having a community to have your back.

Maurice: And we see folks walking around every day and they're in the midst of chronic and repeated trauma. And we walk by them every single day. Sort of alone in the crowd.

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Maurice: I think this work is really important. I'm passionate about San Francisco, as Mary says, I was born and raised here. From a harm reduction perspective, my goal, a lot of time, is to bring a piece of humanity back to people. Most of the time that people come into my office they've seen a thousand therapists. They've been forced into therapy, since we work with a lot of young folks that come from different parts of the country, and they have terrible experiences with therapists.

They come to me and they have a litany of diagnoses that are, if you hear them and you understand them, you're like, “These are all ridiculous.” So they've been over-pathologized, they've been medicated, they've had terrible experiences, they've been locked in facilities, and they give it another shot. They give it another shot because someone has told them that myself or our other therapist, Joy, is nice.

So it goes along with the line of trauma and socializing. I think it's our job, at least mine as a therapist, to offer people different experiences. Hopefully better experiences. I'm not the best therapist in the world, but I do like people. I think this work is really important for people to, sort of, figure out where they're at, and where they want to be, and how much we can support them doing that.

Mary: I keep doing it because I'm really stubborn, and I do still love the work every single day, right?

Maurice: Yeah.

Mary: I feel really lucky all the time that I love my job no matter how difficult it is. But like Maurice was saying about, kind of, bringing humanity back to people and seeing people, actually seeing people. Acknowledging someone's existence is huge and it leads to this self esteem that makes it possible for people to be seen enough that they can think about a future.

I always tell the story about one of the merchants on Haight Street that just bought a store. And he had come to this ridiculous neighborhood meeting that the Haight's notorious for, where there was just all this vitriol and hatred. And he was appalled. He was like, “This is not what I thought the Haight was when I bought my store here.” And we're talking about interacting with folks who were homeless.

And he's like, “I have these kids outside the store and I don't really want them there when we're open.” And I'm like, “Oh, do you know their names?” And he was like, “What?” And I’m like, “You know who they are?” He was like, “No.” And I'm like, “Oh okay, well maybe tomorrow be like, ‘Hey my name's so and so, what's yours?’” And then you say, “Hi”—let's say it's Joe—you say hi to Joe all week long, “Good morning Joe how's it going?” Maybe bring Joe a coffee, I don't know, it's your choice, right.

But after you build some rapport with Joe you can be like, “Hey Joe, maybe could you not hang out right here in front of the store when I'm open.” And you know what? Joe is probably going to move because you've built this respect and relationship with him. Anyhow, so that guy called me a few weeks later and he's like, “I feel so stupid, I don't know why I was so caught off guard by your simple suggestion, but obviously it totally worked. And I feel like a much better neighbor.”

And I always say if people can't give money, actually the gift of acknowledgement and a little conversation is so much huger. It's such a really profound thing that people don't think about. It has the power to give people their value back that has been taken from them by being ignored day after day, in plain sight.

Maurice: Back to that humanity piece, actually seeing someone.

Mary: Yeah.