Those Who Have Lost Their Way

by Jason Albertson, LCSW

Wednesday afternoon is the meeting at the Tenderloin Task Force, with the “70 unit”—the cops who have the homeless outreach beat. They are all volunteers, attracted maybe because it’s about helping in a specific way, maybe because it combines law enforcement and street knowledge of the community and isn’t just pulling runs off the computer. Or maybe because it’s a more reasonable shift and is a little bit outside the eye of the station commanders. Each week I go and listen to the station report. Sergeant Pat Kwan, neat in his dark blues, calls the roll—“Company B, what you got?”—and the officers respond about homeless problems in their patrol area. When the officers talk about specific individuals they want the Homeless Outreach Team to try and engage with, I write down the details of where that person is and what is going on with them.

The officers tell me about people who are gravely ill, dying on the streets. Sometimes they tell me about homeless people who died in their patrol area. They know I keep a list. Often there is a conflict between the social work values and the law enforcement priorities, between the need to maintain public order and the rights of homeless people, a conflict that I have to balance effectively if I want to stay in the room—and I do. SFPD beat cops know a lot about vulnerable homeless people—they are a source of information and my role there isn’t to change the culture of oppression of homeless people, but to coordinate, to use what they’ve got. Knowing the officers and having their assistance comes in handy when I have to put an aggressive or violent person on an involuntary mental health hold, called a 5150 here in California after the section of the Welfare and Institutions Code that permits social workers to detain a mentally ill person against their will for evaluation.

Today it’s different, though. When I walk into the meeting area, a tall officer I haven’t seen before stops me. “Homeless Outreach? Jason Albertson? Supervisor?” I reply that yes, that’s me, that I supervise Homeless Outreach. Officer John Ferraro, with whom I recently coordinated around one of those involuntary commitment holds, is standing next to me. I read the officers name tag and bars on her shoulder tabs—it’s Captain Sardix, whom I met recently when she was on a bicycle patrol going past our office. I’d heard she’d been promoted to station commander since.

She continues: “Do you know how many officers I have working on homelessness in my station, Northern?” I reply that I don’t. She asks, “How many people do you supervise?” I tell her: 13, across two shifts, a.m. and p.m. She’s talking clearly and directly, and I realize that she’s got a point to make and she’s gonna make it, that she wants something. “Well, I’ve got one officer, John here, and I want to know why you didn’t go see that woman and put her on a 5150 hold after John told you about her.”

I look at John. He knows my team and I went to see the woman, lying down in her planter box on Van Ness, and that we engaged with her but that I didn’t feel she met the criteria for an involuntary hold. John looks square at me, but I get the feeling he didn’t put Sardix up to this. I look at her: “Captain, we made outreach to her but I gotta tell you she didn’t meet criteria for an involuntary commitment to Psych. Emergency,”—that is, Psychiatric Emergency Services at General Hospital. “Instead, we made a plan to continue to see her each day, evaluate her each day, and engage with her.”

Sardix looks at me. She isn’t happy with my answer. SFPD doesn’t like the restrictiveness of the involuntary commitment criteria—but I’m not going to write a 5150 hold that isn’t legally justified because they want someone out of a planter box. I can tell that Sardix is thinking that I’m a bleeding heart liberal social work type with no interest in maintaining public order for SFPD, and I’m thinking about telling her that while she may have one SFPD officer for her district covering homeless outreach, I’ve only got 13 for the entire city, but I don’t. She goes on looking at me, but I don’t say nothing more, and take my seat with the rest of the officers.

Lt. Edward Moreno walks in. He’s recently taken command of the Field Operations Bureau, the part of the SFPD that contains the “70” unit, and he,

Sardix, and Kwan run the meeting through. He tells us that next week, the Chief of Police, George Gascón, will be present, along with Deputy Chief Godown, to talk about underfreeway and “quality of life” enforcement. “Quality of life” is the term the criminal justice system uses for the various laws that make crimes out of homeless people’s everyday acts of living. Lt. Moreno tells us that the Homeless Outreach Team and any other civilians present are welcome to come to hear the plans.

After the meeting breaks up, the command staff walk out and I chat with John for a minute. He’s too uniform a police officer to apologize or explain why Sardix braced me but tells me that she wants enforcement in her district to be focused on chronic homeless people and that’s why she’s being so aggressive.

I leave the meeting room and Sardix is half a block away. I see a thin African American man in a dirty gold-tone puffy jacket talking to her, and she strides back in my direction, the fellow in tow. She says, “This guy here, he keeps talking. I can’t understand him—something about a walk-off from a facility. Can you talk to him?”

I tell her sure, I can, and the fellow begins to talk, fast, spit flying from his mouth. I assess: He’s very thin, agitated, his communication urgent—and I can’t understand him. I put my hands up, “Wait, slow down, hold on”, fish a card out of my pocket and hand it over, “I’m Jason Albertson, social worker, Homeless Outreach. What is your name?” He tells me his name is Vanson David and that he saw a man who he used to provide personal care services to as an In-Home Support Services aide, a man who left a residential care facility for disabled people. He wants me to help. We walk back up the street to the little café at the corner of Turk and Leavenworth and I ask question after question about the situation. At the corner, we meet the man he is talking about, an older African American gentleman, with urine on his pants and the unfocused expression and slowed response of a person who has had something injure their brain. I ask him a few questions—where has he been living, what’s going on—and his answers are slow and don’t have a lot of relevance to my questions. Vanson tells me that the gentleman had a stroke a few years ago, and that he used to care for him in his home, but that now the older man is in a program for ex-offenders in the Hunter’s Point district, cared for by several agencies I haven’t heard of—specialized outfits that work with disabled seniors, out of the downtown core. He has a business card with him from the agency caring for the gentleman, the name of the supervisor on the tip of his tongue. I look at him: “You really care about this gentleman, don’t you?” He says, “Yeah, yeah, I do. Look at him: He keeps his dignity.” And it is true: The man is dressed precisely: polished loafer shoes, pants that drape just right, a leather jacket. “I gave him that jacket. He O.G., you know, and I took care of him ‘til I went to jail behind some little piece of Vicodin, but now I got some recovery and…” I tell him okay: I will try and take care of the man. I offer to buy them both coffee at the café where we are. We go in and sit down. Vanson keeps up a steady stream of chatter to the older man, and I field the glances from the man behind the counter who deals the donuts, re-assuring him that we have ability-to-pay. I fork over four bucks for coffee and donuts. O.G. has a hard time picking what kind donut he wants and Vanson helps him by suggesting kinds and types until they both settle on a plain glazed for Vanson and a maple bar for O.G. I can tell he’s helped O.G. make a lot of choices. O.G. stares at his donut for a long time until Vanson breaks a piece off, puts it in O.G.’s hand and guides it halfway to his mouth. Then O.G. remembers he’s got a donut and that it tastes good and eats it.

I work the cell phone the City gives me, hit a couple of voicemail boxes but finally get the Senior Services Agency (part of my brain muttering that probably they get funding from Area Agency on Aging… I should keep this resource in mind, might need it for disabled seniors) and get a person on the line who says he’ll contact the gentleman’s case manager and residential care provider—the folks who run the group home for disabled seniors who have incarceration histories. He’ll call me back, tell me what to do. After 20 minutes or so I get a call back from someone who knows O.G. personally and I establish with him that O.G. does want to return to care. He says he’ll be out in a little while to pick O.G. up, that he’s the subject of a missing person report and that they’ve been worried. He’s been gone three days. Vanson just recognized him on the street, I think. Lucky for him. Old men with strokes and urine on their pants might not live more than a few nights on the Tenderloin streets. He might have been close to being one of the names that SFPD brings up in the meeting.

I turn to Vanson, “Where you staying?” I ask. He tells me he is staying in a shelter, at the Next Door, up the way on Polk Street, and I ask how he got his bed there. He tells me that he got his bed from the CJC—the Community Justice Center, a homeless court—but that he is not sure it is there anymore for him because he spent the last night in jail. He tells me about being at the shelter, waiting for a drug treatment program, that he has been sober for four weeks, and is blessed to be so. That he served time for having got caught with the Vicodin that wasn’t his, but is happy to be sober today. He smiles a lot, thin face animated, open. I ask about the last night in jail, and he tells me that he was picked up on a warrant that had been vacated by the court that had placed him at Next Door, but that the warrant hadn’t yet left the system. He shows me the release paper. He’s not sure he still has the bed at the shelter—the reservation ends if you don’t use it and because he spent the previous night in jail, he couldn’t use the reservation. He wants to get up to the shelter, ask about his bed.

I tell him I’ll make the calls. He’s visibly relieved. I’m impressed—he didn’t ask me to make them. I call Next Door and find out that his bed was ended, his reservation vacated after he no-showed last night. They tell me I have to call the CJC to see if I can get it reinstated. I call the CJC, tell them the story. I mention the good deed Vanson has done, coming to the police to get help for O.G., but the worker on the phone is only minimally responsive. I emphasize the quality of his act of help for O.G. several times, the unfairness of losing a bed because of a leftover warrant in the system. The worker doesn’t think any of it is a big deal, and can’t understand the notes in the computer system that maintains the shelter reservations. She tells me to talk to another worker there, one I know from other interactions. I’m relieved—this one I know I can talk to. I reach her, and I emphasize that his not being in the bed was no fault of his own, and that he seems to be following through just fine. He has his Walden House intake next week and can we please, please give him his bed back? She agrees, and I tell Vanson he’s got a bed. He thanks God and it’s not in a jokey way. I’m relieved, too—I would have put him in one of the 18 beds I manage for homeless men, but I don’t have any unused right now—they are all full of people we convinced in from the street.

The program staffer from where O.G. lives drive up and we help O.G. into the car. He’s willing to go back to the group home. I’m not sure he was really clear that he’d wandered off from it, some worn path in his brain leading out and back to the TL, no doubt his stomping grounds for years before the blood vessel in his head blew out. They thank me and drive off.

Vanson and I talk for a few more minutes. I tell him if he ever needs anything, come find me. Tell him how glad I am that he approached the SFPD brass coming out of the meeting, and we turn our separate ways, me walking back to the office and him heading up to Next Door, to check into his bed and wait for dinner.

Vanson is one of the brave souls, I think as I walk back down Market Street to make my turn onto 6th, back to the office. He’d just been arrested for a warrant that hadn’t backed out of the system; arrested and incarcerated and released at 2:00 in the morning, with nowhere to go. But when he’d seen the police brass leaving the meeting he’d run up to them without hesitation, seeking help for his O.G, for the man he’d cared for six months ago. It’s clear that when he stopped doing the job, the man couldn’t make it anymore. “Failed community” is how we’d put it, with nobody to shop and clean for him, make sure he was dressed in the neat way he’d put himself together for years. Then he’d gone into the residential, and now he’s going back, to safety, to security.

Vanson had every reason to be scared of the cops. He could feel that all they do is put him in jail, could be alienated. But instead he acted from high principle, to help someone else even at potential cost to himself. What if Sardix had gotten curious about this thin, agitated fellow, speaking so fast that he couldn’t be readily understood, in a dirty gold-tone jacket, and asked Pat Kwan to run his ID? What if that warrant still hadn’t backed out of the system?

Vanson David is a brave man, I think, headed down Market Street, past the boarded up ground floor commercials, past the men selling little bits of something and pirated DVDs. Vanson David is a brave and generous man, I think, turning past the Taquería Cancún on 6th Street. Vanson David is the kind of person whom we should provide as many resources to as we can, because his heart is in the right place, despite the odds. Vanson David makes the Tenderloin—many days a grim and desperate place—a little brighter. Vanson David is a lesson to me. Maybe to us all. I don’t know if O.G. is grateful to Vanson, but I am, in ways that I can’t tell him at the time and don’t figure out for months. All I know is that to be witness to an act of kindness and generosity at such potential cost leaves me thrilled.

I hope he makes it.

I remember reading of a Supreme Court decision that stated that in cases of police misconduct, the proper recovery method was civil action, a damage claim against the police and municipality. The idea that someone like Vanson could find a lawyer to take the case of his unnecessary incarceration is ridiculous: He’s just another person who got caught in the mills of law enforcement, the mills that grind exceedingly slowly and exceedingly fine.

But what’s the cost? Look at it one way and the cost isn’t that great: The system spent money it didn’t need to just to keep a man in jail for a night. From another perspective, from the retributive justice perspective, what happened to Vanson isn’t just. If Vanson was the kind of person who harbored a grudge, who felt the system was inherently unfair, prejudiced against Black people perhaps, or if Vanson was the kind of person who felt that it was always “us” (criminals) against “them” (people with power), then there’s potentially a greater cost. Vanson might harbor that anger when he gets into treatment, and then the treatment for his drug usage might not work. He might be more reluctant to invest in the project of getting better, of dealing with the hard and painful reasons that connect to the reason he was out there on Pill Hill in the Tenderloin, buying Vicodin that wasn’t his. His anger and sense of injustice might lead him to the easy answer that taking something that wasn’t his was payback for the unjust, impersonal system that incarcerated him wrongly. There is no way around it—what goes around comes around. And the result of not having a mechanism to repair wrongs, to heal what has come apart, is that Vanson and many others like him get incarcerated more, for longer, push the crime rate and the cost up. And finally, Vanson might take drugs to ease the pain of being mistreated, over and over, and die young from substance abuse. I see it all the time.

The answer isn’t easy. The answer isn’t popular, for sure. We seek to hold Vansons accountable for their behavior. How do we seek to hold ourselves accountable for violating their rights? Who apologizes to Vanson? The judge who set him free? The sheriff who pushed him into an overnight keep-lock cell? The data entry clerk who put his bench-warrant-is-vacated slip on one side of his desk? (“Deal with it tomorrow; it’s 4:45 p.m.”) Who makes it better? We set up a community court so that people who are guilty of “quality of life” crimes can do community service, or get treatment for drug usage, or in some way repay the community—but do we set up a court for ourselves when we violate somebody’s rights? And the truth is I’ve heard the leftover warrant story a thousand times if I have heard it once.

In a small way I tried to make it up to Vanson by intervening with his shelter providers, by offering what help I could; I wanted him to know that people with power can use it for good, to help, to heal wounds, perhaps to gain his trust that the system of care wasn’t always going to screw him over, especially when he tried to do the right thing. And the part that made me saddest was the fact that when I intervened on his behalf, the folks who ought to have seen what I saw, who ought to have gotten behind me and granted my request for his shelter bed treated the matter cavalierly. And they are paid good money to help people get better, to recognize progress and promote pro-social behavior. That’s the whole theory of the Community Justice Center.

In psychology, there is a concept of the responsive environment. The idea is that when a person is in a social ecology that behaves in a predictable manner, that person is likely to learn successful strategies. If you steal, you get caught, you go to jail, and you decide the cost isn’t worth it. You don’t pay the rent, you get evicted. But the converse is also true—when the environment reinforces or supports pro-social behavior, the person learns that pro-social behavior is a valuable thing. Helping others helps you. The idea of “pay it forward” gained currency a few years back, and the pay it forward idea—the idea that doing good brings good to you—is an example of a positively reinforcing responsive environment.

Vanson didn’t get to have that, but he still behaved in a pro-social manner. When I stepped in and intervened, maybe, just a little, I “paid it forward” for him, making it more likely that he might trust a service provider, maybe even enough to bond and get better as he deals with his problems. That’s about all I can hope for.

Until we are able to value the rights of the Vansons, the people whom our finely grinding mills have ground down time and again, until we are able to look at our arbitrary use of power and its impacts, we will have little hope of reducing the costly criminal behavior engendered by that arbitrary deployment of power. Until we acknowledge these problems successfully, we will bear the social and financial costs of their results.

Who was it that said that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it?

We are called to heal wounds,

to unite what has fallen apart,

and to bring home those who have lost their way.

—Francis of Assisi