Breaking the Cycle

It's expensive and time-consuming, but a court can help cure the hard-core homeless problem in San Francisco

Jo Robinson, director of Jail Psychiatric Services, sums up the argument for the court: "It's labor-intensive, and expensive — but it's what works." Some Sacramento legislators have caught on; earlier this year state Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill to encourage the creation of mental health courts throughout the state.

However, when dealing with such troubled clients, smooth and steady recoveries are rare. Less than 15 minutes after the trumpet serenade on that June afternoon, the emotional atmosphere of the court took a dip. A tiny, angular woman in a long tan coat came to stand before the judge with a Spanish interpreter by her side. She was jumpy and agitated. "I don't know if I'm well or not," the woman said right away. "My body is going crazy."

"Did you take all your medicine this afternoon?" asked the judge in her measured tone.

Jo Robinson, director of Jail Psychiatric Services, says inmates stand a better chance of not coming back if referred to Behavioral Health Court.
Paolo Vescia
Jo Robinson, director of Jail Psychiatric Services, says inmates stand a better chance of not coming back if referred to Behavioral Health Court.
Steve Winters.
Paolo Vescia
Steve Winters.

"I've taken all my medicine, but my body is dislocated," the woman said through the puzzled interpreter. "My nose is in my head, and my ears are in my mouth."

The room quieted again. The judge calmly asked the woman's caseworker to approach the bench, but the woman was already frustrated. She wheeled around and strode out of the room, making angry, dismissive noises through her teeth. A uniformed deputy and the woman's case manager walked swiftly after her. It was a reminder of how close many defendants still are to the edge.

Court carried on, but a few minutes later the case manager was back with the woman. Judge Morgan gave the woman some sympathy — "I know it must be very upsetting when it feels like your body is disorganized or out of place," she said, and gave the woman her instructions.

"If you don't go see your psychiatrist tomorrow, it's going to be very hard for you to stay in Behavioral Health Court," said Morgan.

"What happens if I don't?" said the woman.

"Back to criminal court," said Morgan grimly.

Winters' story begins in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he was raised by a hard-drinking stepfather and a hardworking mother, he says.

He often tells the story of what happened to his useless right eye, which has a milky white film covering the blue iris. When he was 10 years old, he got shot in the eye with a BB gun, he says. "That BB didn't feel too good, but it didn't blind me," Winters says. The damage was done by the handkerchief soaked in rubbing alcohol that his stepfather told him to press against the injured eye.

"It was that rubbing alcohol," Winters says. "I said, 'It's burning, it's burning!' Daddy said, 'Keep it on a little longer! We're going to sue them!'" Winters says the family did sue, and got $11,000 in a settlement. "My stepdaddy, he got about $3,500 of that money for his expenses," he says.

Winters quit school in the ninth grade, and got a job at McDonald's, where he worked for almost three years. Winters thought about learning a vocational trade like brick-making, "but it just didn't work out as well as I hoped," he says. Instead, he starting getting into trouble with the law in North Carolina, most significantly when youthful urges caused him to break into a boarding house, intending to visit two girls who were staying there. He says he didn't get very far; still, the cops called it burglary with intent to rape and he ended up in the state penitentiary for a couple of years.

It's impossible to get Winters to give a linear account of his life — he doesn't think that way — but the stories he tells can be pieced together into a loose narrative. He lived in Atlanta when he was a young man, living in cheap hotels and working as a dishwasher or as a temporary laborer. He went to live in New Orleans, but got hauled back to North Carolina by a probation officer. He wound up in a mental hospital in North Carolina for a spell, and again in Atlanta when a diversion program sent him to the mental hospital instead of the state penitentiary.

He tried living in New York City for a few months, he says, but it was too hard.

"It's hard to make a buck in N.Y.C.," he says. "Hustling gays — that's a demoralizing job. It's hard to turn a trick in N.Y. I guess you have to look like Richard Gere." Winters says he isn't gay, but that never mattered when he needed a bit of quick cash.

His next move was a better fit, he says. Back in the temporary labor pool in Atlanta, he met a man called Hippie Bill, from San Francisco. "He said the best thing I could do was live in San Francisco," Winters says. "He said the police are more liberal." So more than 20 years ago, Winters and two friends piled into a cheap car and drove west.

He does remember what happened on his second day in the city, when he picked up a trick in Civic Center Plaza. "He said, 'Ever do any fist-fucking?'" Winters remembers. "I said, 'I don't think I can do that.' He said he'd give me $25. Then, when he finished, he couldn't find his wallet!"

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