Breaking the Cycle

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

According to the incident report, on April 18, 2000, Winters wedged a metal pole in the Muni tracks at 14th Avenue and Judah Street. A Muni worker saw the pole and pulled it out before a train came, but as soon as he put it down, Winters snatched it up and put it back on the tracks. The Muni worker had to take the pole out again and guard it until the police came, as Winters kept making grabs for it.

Winters says he waited in jail a long time, and was told that he might get a sentence of up to 25 years for the felony charge of train wrecking. Instead, he got five years of probation, according to Johnson, the public defender. But he went straight back to his usual corner of Ninth and Irving, where his petty crimes began to be counted as probation violations.

By March 2003 those violations had added up and Winters was being held in custody — but that's when the Behavioral Health Court intervened. The program was new, and Winters was one of the first people to sign up. "Without Behavioral Health Court, Steven would have wound up in state prison," says Johnson. The state prisons are already crowded with mentally ill prisoners, and last year a federal judge found that the state violated the constitutional rights of these prisoners by providing inadequate care.

Instead, Winters made it through the program in about a year, and his probation was terminated early when he "graduated." Three years after that graduation, Winters still goes to see his current case manager, Kyong Yi, every Wednesday. They meet at Yi's office, and walk together to Winters' room at the Ambassador Hotel, where she assigns him cleaning tasks. Sometimes she goes shopping with him for necessities like garbage bags and cleaning supplies. "My job is to support him in building a life for himself that he enjoys," Yi says. There is no loftier goal than complete autonomy: "I can't imagine Steve not being a client here," Yi says. "I think the transition for him would be disastrous."

Winters lives off his "government check," as he calls it. Until he got his room at the Ambassador Hotel, the check was $900 a month; it went down to $770 a month because he now has cooking facilities in his building — namely, a communal microwave. Winters doesn't complain, though, and seems proud that he can make his own meals. "I use that microwave to warm my hot dogs up every night," he says. "I been living on hot dogs entirely, about four, five, six hot dogs a day — $1.29 a pack, eight in a pack."

Yi has Winters' rent payment deducted automatically from his check so that he won't forget to pay it. From what's left over, he gets $42 each Monday and Friday, a lot of which he spends on good weed from the medical marijuana clubs, bought secondhand. He gets an extra $10 when he takes his biweekly shot of medicine — an important inducement, because Winters doesn't like medicine. "Risperdal — they started me on that stuff at jail, but I was spitting out those pills," he says. Yi says the switch to a supervised shot contributed greatly to Winters' stability, though he won't admit it. "I don't know what the Risperdal's for," he says, "they just figure I need it. Nerves, I guess."

At Yi's office, Winters gets to call home to his 74-year-old mother in North Carolina. "My momma tells me, take your medicine, Stevie, be good!" he says. And he is being good. Last Halloween, he showed the Tenderloin that he has civic spirit. "I got one of those $5.99 bags of M&Ms, gave 'em to the trick-or-treaters going down Eddy Street." After 20 years as a San Francisco outsider, he's not just a law-abiding citizen, he's a good neighbor.

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