This is the third 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 and Part 2.
Jeff was born in Fontana, California, home of the original Hells Angels. “They called it Felony Flats ever since I was a kid," he said. “I had to fight for my skateboard, my bike, everything, man.” Of all the rooms I’d been in so far, Jeff’s was the most expressive—every piece felt like a part of the man himself, from zombie-stripper playing cards, to a life-sized melted wax skull, to worn skateboard decks bolted to the walls as shelves.
The room itself is an 8-by-10-foot unit on the corner of Market Street, overlooking the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Project. Jeff has lived there since he was released from prison in 2005.
Everything seemed to flow out of him in massive waves. Out of his ink-covered throat, he spouted long and meandering stories in a sandpaper voice as his scarred-up arms would hold out another piece of iconography to examine: a greaser tchotchke, a gold tooth, a weathered photo of his mother. Jeff is clearly troubled in many ways, but we're sharing his story as a reminder of the harsh realities that many homeless face every day.
VICE: Where’d you get that scar?
Jeff: This one I got at a doughnut shop on Seventh and Market. This one got tattooed over.
How many do you have?
Man, I’ve been stabbed like 13 times. I'm 50; I shoulda been dead five times over by now.
How’ve you been stabbed that many times?
By not giving a fuck [heavy coughing and laughter].
How were your parents?
I was raised by my mom because my dad was too crazy. Sometimes I’d be playing in his car, and I’d find a gun under the seat. But my dad’s side of the family was into some other stuff that shouldn't be written about, and I really love my mom. I’m a mama’s boy, but my dad’s half Danish, so I’ve got that berserker blood. Since I was a little kid, I’d go into blackouts. See red, and it’s all bad.
Did you go to school?
No, I got kicked out of the whole Fontana School District when I was 15. Dude, my record was inches thick. But when I was a kid they wanted to put me in mentally gifted minors, that’s why I be reading, like, Milton and, you know, like, Dante—The Inferno, you know. Nietzsche. “A full and powerful soul not only copes with losses, robberies, or painful deprivations. It will emerge from these hells with a greater fullness and powerfulness." Nietzsche, 1888 [more heavy coughing].
Everything is subject to our perception, and to a great extent we’re a product of our environment. Me growing up in Fontana, in the dirt, tumbleweeds, rocks, and dogs—some streets you don’t ride your bicycle down 'cuz they got a pit bull named Satan that will, man, tear you to pieces. So moving up to Marin was total culture shock, and I used to come over here to Frisco. I used to rent rooms at the Columbus on Golden Gate and Columbus, right there on the corner, for, like, 12 bucks a night.
How much does your room now cost?
For me? My friend got me in here, Seamus. Great guy, but he’s dead now. I pay a certain amount of my income, but right now I’m on disability because my back is shot out from roofing. And because I went over the handlebars at 70 miles an hour, wide open in fifth gear. And then playing football, I got stovepiped twice.
We used to bang heads, right? To see who could get their helmets most marked up. Like, if you saw somebody’s helmet had a bunch of colors on it and bangs on it, you knew they were a hitter. And I was a defensive end, I was a beast. But so, if you don’t have your head up, if you have it down, it’ll compress your spine and knock your vertebrae out of place. That’s stovepiping. I got eight verts knocked out of place the first time, and then five the second time. But I loved bangin’ heads.
Jeff displays a stab wound
When did you come to San Francisco?
Like in '81. When I came over here, I was managing this apartment building and selling heroin on Hyde and Eddy. That’s where we made the porno.
Yeah, I made a porno with Ellie Mae for ForbiddenSex.com, and I was like, “If I die today, I’ll be a happy man.” But remember when Gavin Newsom started housing all the homeless? Well, he was just down there by himself on Seventh and Market, and I just wanted to say, "Hey, thanks for all you’ve done for the homeless, you’ve done a lot for my friends, and blah, blah, blah," and he says, “What can I do for you?” and I was shocked. I told him, “I’m on the street, strung out on heroin, sleeping on the sidewalk, and I need to get indoors and on methadone." So he called the Homeless Outreach Team, told them, “I’m sending a guy over there." I went down, and half an hour later I was in a van. They were taking me to the Warfield [Theater]. I stayed there for a month or two. Then I got a new prescription, and I took six Somas and six Phenergan, and that’s when I woke up in the house in the Marina, and that’s when it all went bad. I got a new prison number at 40.
What happened to you?
Well, my car got stolen, with all my supplies and money in it for my roofing business, and I was taking pills. I was shooting a ton of heroin, and I had a couple drinks. Next thing you know, I wake up and I’m on my back. I look over, and there are these two BART cops looking at me. I tried to stand up, and WHAM, I fell right back down. SFPD showed up, ran my name, saw I had a warrant, and they took me in.
I had a warrant in Marin for possession. There, I didn’t sleep for 38 days. That’s when I told my old friend Dave, the head of the probation department, “Dave, I’m not gonna bullshit you, but I’m in a bad way, and I need to get out." He told the judge, “Your Honor, I don’t know how this is gonna sound, but I have known this man, personally, for 20 years. And he has some very important business he needs to attend to, and I will vouch for him," and he got me out. At that point I was on methadone too, cause I was shooting 4 grams of heroin a day, just to stay well. I was getting like 25 bucks for like a half a gram, so that was a $200 a day, minimum, habit.
What did you do after getting out?
I came here, found my mom again, and I got clean. And I’ve been clean. It was just something I needed to do. I’m not a kid anymore. And it’s an expensive habit [heavy laughter]. I guess it’s been like nine years. Wow. I never really thought about it. Man, I was like 150 pounds with six teeth. I got a gold one now!
What’s the worst you’ve seen down here?
There’s a bathtub down the hall… a couple people died there. My buddy Jack, he died in his room. Shoot, when I was managing that apartment on Hyde and Eddy, Melissa hadn’t seen a guy in two weeks, and she’s like, “Let’s go check on him," and we went in his room, and they had these big Murphy beds that fold down, and I see these feet sticking out of the closet, and I’m like, Oh, shit. Homeboy was still alive, though! The paramedics said that he said something about the Giants in the ambulance, and then he died. He’d been lying there for so long that when they pulled his arm off his body, there was a sore there. I’ve seen some shit.
I’ve saved a few; you just gotta breathe for them, that’s the trick. Tilt their head back, close their nose, put your mouth on theirs, and just blow really hard right into their lungs. I had to blow into Rigo’s mouth for four hours to keep him alive. He snored like a freight train, and his heart would go BUH-BOOM, BUH-BOOM, and then it would slow down, and he’d go out again. He wanted me to make him a shot, so I made him a shot, like I would do, right? Which was like 80 [mg] and some oil, and that dummy did it, and man, he was like my best buddy, he worked for me, and he had like the key to my place. His mom treated me like family, called me mijo. I was like a son to her. But my other buddy, he got into a fight; I seen him get shot right in the heart. With an Uzi.
Where do you get an Uzi? What happened?
Anywhere, shit—Chinatown, Bayview, East Bay, Oakland. But so, there’s this little party, and Shirley’s kid was trying to sleep, and Adam and Stash were about to get in a fight, so Rabbit comes in with this Uzi, and he hasn’t slept in like ten days, and he points the Uzi in Stash's chest and says, “Shut the fuck up and get the fuck out, all right?” and Stash just grabs the gun, twists it, yanks the clip out, and goes, “Now what are you gonna do, punk?” and Adam just went POW, shot him right in the heart. He fell straight back, BOOM, his head hit the door so hard. I walked up, and I looked into his eyes, and he was out cold.
Fuck, then what?
All these girls start screaming and crying and freaking out; people are hiding everywhere. Jason, this kid, he’s crying, I go “Man, shut up, stick your finger in the hole, stop the bleeding." Heh, it wasn’t even bleeding, I was just being an asshole. I hit 911 with my fingernail, and I went and grabbed our 12-packs out of the freezer, wiped my fingerprints off of everything, you know, and then I hid in SoCal for three years because they wanted me to testify. But yeah, that was fucked up, to see Stash get shot. He had a lot of potential. Watching people OD. Get shot. Get stabbed. Robbed. All that kinda good stuff. It can get ugly, some of these places.
That's rough, man.
I’ll tell you, I've had some ups and some downs, but the downs make the ups seem that much more up. And right now, in my life, I mean, I’m having it my way. I really am. I’m getting older, I’m not drinking, I’m clean, I’m doing what I want to do. Sometimes I’ll take my board out on Sunday when the streets are closed and go carving all around. This thing flies.
Next week, we talk to an SRO resident who alleges that he holds the record for the most successful attempts to break into the San Francisco Giants' baseball stadium.
Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.