Charles Davis: In memoriam
by Rev. Victor H. Floyd
For many years, Street Sheet has educated me and led me to an understanding and deeper love for my unhoused neighbors. In my context as a pastor, Street Sheet is a sacred text, an on-the-scene report from the front lines where Need and Greed do constant battle. The way our beloved San Francisco is set up, Greed has the advantage. Need is left to justify the very existence of the People of Need. Our Mayor and Supervisors misconstrue the nature of Need, often quite willfully. That same willful misunderstanding is transmitted through the local media, spreading prejudice and scapegoating with the help of various homeowner associations and Nextdoor. This cancerous misperception of unhoused people infects even the most progressive of San Francisco’s faith communities.
To connect my congregation to the homeless community, I contacted Kelley Cutler, self-described “General Shit Stirrer” at the Coalition on Homelessness. I wanted her help introducing a Street Sheet vendor to my Pacific Heights congregation. In the style of Dolly Levi from “Hello, Dolly!”, Kelley matched us with the perfect person: Charles Davis.
When Charles showed up, we thought it was okay to call him Charlie. He soon disabused us of that practice, yielding to the fanciness of Pacific Heights. Charles sold Street Sheets during coffee hour, the time after Sunday morning worship services devoted to conversation and, let’s face facts, catching up on all the best gossip. We arranged for Charles to sit at a table with his stack of newspapers. During the service, I would invite the congregation to meet Charles, and he would often chime in spontaneously, something like “If you can contribute more, I could sure use it.”
Charles developed relationships in the congregation. Robin, who was studying to become a social worker, offered her services. Charles would show up at her internship to say hello and inquire about his assistance options. Robin is now a full-time social worker at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Palo Alto. I found it completely adorable that Charles, a small man, gravitated toward Laura and Brian, the tallest people in our congregation, a married couple with small children. They invited Charles to eat with them on Christmas Eve, and he got to know their kids. When their children received the news of Charles’ death, they had questions. Would God know what he likes to eat? Will there be enough ice cream for Charles in heaven?
My last time with Charles was in August; he had just been accepted into the City’s hotel program. When I called the City to advocate for him, I experienced the dismissive treatment too many unhoused San Franciscans are used to. They told me they would help this time, but don’t ever ask for their help again. Charles packed up his things in several large plastic bags, and he came to meet me near the church. I helped him go shopping for ramen and ice cream. We waited together, ice cream softening, until the City’s representatives showed up to take him to the Tilden Hotel in a Paratransit van. He died there, in his hotel room.
A couple years ago, Charles interviewed my colleague, Rev. Joann H. Lee, and me for Street Sheet — “The Three Musketeers of Calvary Church” (December 1, 2019). Charles planned to join Calvary, but never got around to it. But all of us at Calvary consider Charles part of our church family. His death was a shock. We plan to memorialize him once we can meet safely again in person. Consider yourself invited.
Charles and I seized few opportunities for him to tell me about his life—his upbringing, his family, his hopes. He wanted, more than anything, to be housed and live a stable life. Charles campaigned zealously for Prop. C: Our City Our Home. He was devastated when the Mayor refused to endorse it. He was demoralized after Prop. C’s passing when it became ensnared in the litigation of Greed. But at least Charles lived to see Prop. C vindicated in a court of law one month before his death, and we will carry the torch for him and all God’s children. The corporations of Greed have finally been ordered to help, and next they’ll claim hardship (as if), having been downsized by COVID-19 and the many employees who have relocated away from San Francisco. The number of homes standing empty has never been higher. This is the sad irony, the fruits of the garden planted by Greed.
As the coronavirus sends all the Chicken Littles and Henny Pennies into the shrillness of scarcity thinking and performative anxiety, I call on every San Franciscan to cultivate a deeper sense of empathy. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Imagine what it’s like to live on the street, in a car, in a tent, and to have your stuff swept away by the DPW in the wee hours of the morning. Realize the abundance we possess, inherently—the things that haves can never lose. Greed has a chokehold on our fair city, but we can experience moral healing when we let go of scapegoating the homeless community and stereotyping those who have not as somehow damaged goods. No one is damaged goods in the kingdom of heaven! I can only have faith in that sentiment, but Charles knows it now and eternally.
Rest in power, my sweet, chatty, redheaded “stepson” Charles. I thank God that you left this world while sheltered and well-fed. Your life mattered. God used you as a blessing. You leave behind friends transformed by your very existence. Now you know the secret of God’s promises, and your reward is better than unlimited ice cream. Pray for us left here below. May we do right by you.
Rev. Victor H. Floyd
Calvary Presbyterian Church (USA)
by Quiver Watts, Street Sheet editor
At our staff meeting this week, one of my co-workers reported that our office’s call-forwarding system had been sending him calls at 3 a.m. from a person calling himself “Angel,” calling to yell about his frustration that he has not yet been placed in housing. We all laughed and decided that these calls must be coming from Charles Davis beyond the grave (before, of course, fixing the call-forwarding function). It probably seems a bit cold to be laughing so soon after Charles’ death, but I don’t think he would mind; what he lacked in tact, Charles made up for with honesty, exuberance and a snappish temper, which made him sometimes difficult to work with, but more importantly, made him a survivor.
San Francisco’s homelessness response is all centered around the myth that homeless people deserve nothing, that anything the City offers is an act of goodwill and charity rather than a social responsibility to make up for the economic violence done to our neighbors. Many people have very much internalized this false narrative, but not Charles. He knew what he deserved: he deserved housing, he deserved a job, he deserved respect, and he was gunning for anyone who dared deny him.
Back in 2018, when I first started editing the Street Sheet, Charles Davis showed up often demanding that we start a cashless payments program so that vendors could take Venmo instead of just collecting cash. He said that San Franciscans didn’t carry cash anymore, that his old gig at Real Change (the street paper in Seattle) they were taking cashless payments, that we had no excuse to not keep up with the times. The program was hard to set up, but Charles lit and kept a fire under my ass, asking me about it every time we saw each other for months
and insisted that we needed to make it happen. It is thanks to him that our Venmo program exists, pulling in significant income to our vendors through their cashless sales.
Charles also contributed to the Stolen Belonging project, spearheaded by artist Leslie Dreyer and run through the Coalition on Homelessness. He helped conduct interviews with homeless people who had lost their belongings in sweeps, documenting the precious photos, family heirlooms, hand-me-downs that they had lost to Public Works crushers. In the first video put out by the project, you can hear Charles speaking to the problem, saying “Homeless people out here, a lot of them have property and stuff that they bring that’s their only belongings, and when they get taken, it’s like a part of their life is taken as well.” He was fiercely committed to getting justice for people targeted with the inhumane practice of sweeping encampments, and he also fought actively for systemic solutions like Proposition C, which will house homeless San Franciscans and keep at-risk people housed.
Charles wasn’t always easy to get along with, and shortly before the pandemic sent us into lockdown, we had to ask him to take a break from the program until he could avoid initiating confrontations with some of our staff members. It had been a long time since I’d seen Charles, but I thought of him often, and while losing people is all too common when working in homeless communities, his loss has hit me hard.
Charles did not deserve to die without a permanent home, and he knew that was true so deeply in his heart. He fought hard for a San Francisco in which everyone has a safe place to live, and we will hold him in memory as we carry on the fight for housing.