This is the fourth in a four-part series on housing the substantial homeless population in San Francisco, featuring stories from the people living on the margins of life in one of America's richest cities. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Randy loves two things: the San Francisco Giants, and Tom Waits. "I have like ten of his discs and sometimes it's just me and him hanging out," he said. A four-year resident of an SRO off Market Street, I'd met Randy on his way to a Giants game, decked out from top-to-bottom in black and orange.
Before we could learn each other's names, he'd invited me into his small, overflowing room, surrounded by trash bags full of dirty laundry, dog-eared baseball season tickets pinned above the doorway, and loose-leaf English teas in green translucent marijuana containers peppered throughout the room. Everything seemed to have its own informal organization, but really it was just a mess.
VICE: Do you know the people in the building?
Randy: I don't really like to meet too many new people.
When did you come to San Francisco?
About five years ago. I'd just ended a relationship with my girl. We were together for almost about ten years, in Riverside, [California]. Just decided we weren't going to do it anymore. Seems strange down there now. I can't believe I lived there for so many years. Just weird. You don't see nobody walking down the sidewalks or nothing.
The Santa Anas have got this haunting breeze to them, the heavy smoggy air, all of it. When I moved up here I found the center of my universe.
What keeps you in this SRO?
I dunno, being lazy I guess. I don't work right now. Welfare pays my rent, basically. But if I had a job I could still live here, because they'd only take like a third of my income.
How did you get a spot?
When I was in the shelter, this woman put up a flyer that said this building was going to open and they were looking for candidates that could move in. What they were basically looking for was somebody with some kind of a background of mental illness. Those people were gonna be at the top of the list to move into this building. So I signed up because I have a background of that, in my adolescence. I had this 5150 thing happening with me.
Yeah, like its code for "danger to yourself and others." "Mental with delusions," they said. So, I've been through that wringer for several years, and I'm taking all kinds of medications. Mostly Haldol.
Are they helping?
I would stop taking them sometimes, and would feel a lot better, but then all of a sudden, I'd start getting paranoid again, and people would tell me like, "No, they know what's best for you, you're supposed to take them." I would take them again and it'd be huge swings. Sometimes I felt like I was gonna pull myself up by the bootstraps, and I wasn't gonna take them anymore. I just didn't really know how I was supposed to feel. And all these different struggles with trying to stop taking it and so forth, they tried all different kinds on me and after a while I just stopped taking them. It took me a long time to sort of get out of that rut.
How are you doing now?
Good! Doing really good! At first, a lot of my problems were centered around religion. That's where most of my delusions stemmed from in the beginning. I had a car accident before this started, and I was on meth. I was making a U-turn in front of my friend's house and grabbing a tape on the floorboard in the middle of the passenger seat, and it happened to be a Slayer tape too, right? There was already Slayer in there, and I wanted to hear the other one, you know, the South of Heaven one. And so anyway, I stepped on the gas a little bit more and let my foot off the clutch a little bit while I was leaning down, and as soon as I came up, I slow motion crashed into my windshield, and my knees went into my dashboard, and I just saw my whole car crinkle up and the little cracks spider-webbing on the glass.
What did you hit? Another car?
No, a lamppost. But I was comforted. I wasn't in any pain at all, and I felt like I was being saved by an angel, and it had taken up my space. So my knees were bleeding, and my forehead was bleeding, and I felt fine. It wasn't long after that that I started getting weird.
When was that?
I was about 18. And since I had that sort of thing in my background, they were able to use it to place me in here.
So a person can't move in here if they just want to?
I don't think so. There's sort of a process, but they're pretty fair, I think. They see people taking advantage over and over again, with no respect for others, and so forth, but you gotta be pretty darn bad—like that guy downstairs—to be thrown out. He just gets hammered and yells at everybody all the time. He has conniptions. You can actually get away with a lot around here without getting kicked out.
Do you think most people in this building have a drug or alcohol problem?
Probably, at least half or more. My first couple of years, I was pretty aloof. Having my more current issues since I moved here—being brokenhearted about my ex relationship and filled with regret and all these memories and things that I did, and things I shoulda done—those were the blues, you know. I was probably getting drunk about half the time, and periodically smoking meth or something. Smoked a little crack here and there. That right there would get a lot of people in trouble. Crack, that's kind of a problem around here. People just get so caught up in it, I think it's just ridiculous. It's stupid.
Why were you doing it?
Because it was free. I used to go score for people sometimes. One guy would cough up the money and he'd give me a little bit of it. I turned him down sometimes, I coulda got shafted or busted. But mostly I didn't have nothing better to do anyway. And if I wasn't drunk, I wanted to be something else.
Are you still using?
No no, not like that at all. One time I got caught, years ago. I had just been fishing down at the pier, and I was riding my bike down at Mission and 9th, right by that donut shop. I'd just bought a pizza at 6th Street, an extra large from Chico's, and I was on my bicycle, and I had like these two dimes I scored, when out of nowhere I got tackled by a cop! He drags me off my bike and slams me into a gate. He ripped my ear off almost entirely, on the gate padlock. So they took me down to jail, and my ear was dangling off, and they look at me and say, "Well, you're free to go" after they did this to me. They had an ambulance come, and they said I could leave my bike with them, or get on my bike and go to the hospital myself. So I got on my bike, got another pizza at Chico's, ear hanging off, bleeding everywhere, went home, enjoyed a little of the pizza, watched some TV, and later on that night I rode my bike to the hospital. They patched me up.
What's the worst thing you've seen in an SRO?
You know, people just die. This old guy named Jack, he lived around the corner, real sweet. But he was struggling, you know, on dialysis and stuff. He really liked music, right up my alley. He had a really modern stereo and liked to crank it up sometimes. He said "I'll give you four packs of cigarettes if you just wash two bowls, two plates, a couple of knives, a fork, and a spoon" and I said, "I'll do it for two packs of cigarettes."
That's kind of you.
I asked him once, "For relief, what helps you get by? What makes you take your mind off all this dialysis stuff?" He tells me, "Meth!" I go, "Wow, meth makes you feel better?" He goes, "Yeah, but it's terrible on your body". I was like, "Wow." He's about ready to die, and he still seeks some kind of pleasure that he gets out of meth. And then one day, the ambulance came.
When did Jack die?
About a year ago, at least. There's been a bunch of other people that died who I haven't known very well. But other than that, there are people who just think they can live how they're living and do as they please. You know, shit all over the bathroom floor, leave trash everywhere, spit loogies right in the middle of the carpet. You just kinda gotta shake your head and not get too mad about it.
Have you been to jail?
Yeah, just a couple times. I used to be legendary for sneaking into AT&T Park, I brought friends in with me to football games and concerts. I probably snuck in there over 40 or 50 times.
What's one of the ways you'd sneak in?
Well, they have these gates surrounding the whole place, and so if there was a fire or something, they're not allowed to keep 'em locked. So on the bottom they have these slide bars, and they're slid into the lock position. And right underneath there's a padlock with a hole right there, but the padlock is unlocked, you just have to turn the padlock, push it up, get it out of that hole, then you gotta slide the bar over without making a big clanging noise, then you have to reach in between the bars to the other side of the gate and press that button, and just push it open. In a real small moment, second, a window of opportunity, you either go for it or you chicken out. I got popped for it a few times though. They took me to jail.
For sneaking in?
Yeah! The cops said, "It's not up to me, man! You're getting arrested by the San Francisco Giants!" I'm like "Fuck, they're arresting me? I'm a big fan!" They told me I'd be out in a few hours, so by 9:00PM I was worried I'd miss Dancing with the Stars, but they never let anybody out till about 4:30 in the morning.
At least you got out.
Yeah, I've been lucky. I got caught stealing a case of beer from Foods Co one time, and they put me in jail, but they let me out in the morning because they didn't book me all the way in. I'm lucky I got away with what I did, and I've mellowed out a lot. I'm not doing any of my scams anymore. I'm pretty much back to normal. Now when I get broke I don't worry about it because that's normal for me.
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