THE INTERSECTION looks at change in the Bay Area through physical intersections and street corners — where different cultures, desires and histories meet every day.
Season one focuses on Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that some feel is changing, while others feel it’s getting worse. What you’ll hear this is season is what producer David Boyer found while spending the better part a year getting to know the people who live and work nearby. This is episode one — listen to more.
Golden Gate and Leavenworth
Golden Gate and Leavenworth is on the edge of downtown San Francisco—where the touristy vibe of Union Square gives way to the grittier one of the Tenderloin. It’s a hectic corner: Traffic rushes down Golden Gate, and the sidewalks are packed. There are people rushing somewhere and others hanging out.
And the folks hanging out are there for a lot of different reasons -- there are people like Mike Anderer, who works at a middle school steps away from the corner; he wants to make the street safer and healthier for everyone. There are drug dealers and buyers. There are people that live in tiny rooms. For them, the sidewalk is their living room. And there are the homeless. Of the more than 7,500 people without permanent housing in San Francisco, half can be found in the Tenderloin.
That’s where Katrina and her husband Coop are: They are sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against a large black suitcase and a granny cart filled with their possessions. They are keeping an eye on the childcare center across the street. As soon as it closes, they cross Golden Gate Avenue and grab a spot for the night. Like many of the non-profits in the area, the center probably won’t call the cops to remove them. These service providers know all too well that there are few places for the homeless to go. And moving them from this spot will not solve anything. So, Coop sets up their tent and Katrina, as she does most nights, cooks dinner for herself, Coop and assorted friends who stop by.
“I can cook my a** off,” explains Katrina. “I cook everything. I cook gumbo. I cook jambalaya. I cook oxtails. I cook neck bone. I can cook gator. I cook hamburger. I cook French fries. I cook everything.”
“She’ll smoke some pork chops and make you lick your elbow from the juice running down your arm,” says her friend who goes by the name Magnificent. “Everybody eats from her ... Even the police be wanting to taste it.”
Katrina's husband Coop has several favorites, including her chili. "You know, back toward Texas, they supposed to be the best chili makers. You know, chuck wagons and the wild wild west.. She’ll knock em out of the box. Can’t touch it. Can’t touch her.”
Tonight, as the sun begins to set, she’s surrounded by what she calls her street family. She’s smoking ribs -- right on the sidewalk -- with a barbeque smoker that a her “cousin” brought her.
Before she had the smoker she cooked with an aluminum pan. “I put some charcoal in [one pan]. Light it up. Get it all red and nice and hot. Then I set another pan on top of it and start cooking,” she explains.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t go play hide and go seek. I didn’t play hopscotch. I watched my mother in the kitchen. I feel like that’s a way for me to get out of this. I mean, because I got a gift.”
Her dream is to open her own restaurant.
“It’s going to called Tri Tri’s,” she says. “I mean, I’m serious.”
But it’s a long way from here to there. That’s because Katrina, who’s in her late 30s, has been living on the street for three years. Before that she lived in SROs in the neighborhood. Tiny rooms with a hot plate for cooking and shared bathrooms.
A family apart
She’s had a hard life. When Katrina was three, she saw her mother kill her father in self-defense. “My mother went to jail of course,” she explains. “And I had to stay with different family members. Can’t nobody treat you like your mother. That’s some real sh*t.”
She loves her mom even though she wasn’t really there for her as she was growing up. Katrina’s mother was addicted to heroin. Now Katrina is too.
“The reason I started snorting heroin is because my mother was on heroin. And I wanted to see ... why was she on it? You know, I just tried to imagine what my mother went through. But I ended up getting hooked.”
She says she’s been on heroin for more than a year. And she’s tired. Of using drugs. Of living on the street. And, most of of all she misses her three kids, who are teenagers and live with her sister in the East Bay.
“I haven’t seen my babies in two years,” she says, choking back tears. “It’s very selfish of me. They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve it. But I’m can’t drag them into this life. I refuse to. But my son miss me like crazy."
Katrina knows she needs help getting sober. She’s tried liquid methadone in the past which she says made her vomit. She has an appointment with her doctor in the morning and she plans to talk him about getting on methadone pills.
Her husband Coops says that he’d like to get them off the streets “into anything with a nice kitchen in it.” And even though they have spoken to the the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team, both refuse to go to a shelter.
Coop explains: “Have you ever been to jail or something like that? It’s just … they got some rules or curfew and a lot of stuff you’ve got to [abide] by to be there. You know, if I was back East I’d go to one, because you’ll die out on the street out there. Straight up."
"You know, me, myself: I could go home in Antioch. But I choose not to. Because I don’t know, man. It’s just. Up in Antioch, you know, all you hear is birds and stuff. Some people like that but I’m a city person. You know, I want to hear a fire truck. I want to … stuff like that. You know what I’m saying: I like the excitement. There’s never a boring moment.”
A way out
Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic is a half a block from where Katrina and Coop sleep. The clinic serves the city’s poor and homeless.
Joseph Pace, who is the director of primary care homeless services for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the clinic’s medical director, hasn’t met Katrina. But he’s met a lot of people in similar situations.
“A lot of our patients cared for here came from very challenging and at times abusive and brutal life circumstances,” he explains. “There’s a whole cascade of things that happened to people very early on in their lives that sort of set them on a different trajectory. And then those things just kind of cycle and compound on each other. And then you end up with a lifetime of bad things that chase you wherever you go ... I try to help [them] envision something better.’
But where to begin with someone in Katrina’s situation? “The first thing I would ask her is, 'What do you see for yourself moving forward?,’” he says. “Because, any change, no matter who it is and no matter how small or large the change is ... for it to occur, and for it to be sustained, has to come from within.”
Then, he explains, he would ask her is keeping her from her goals. “So, if she tells me 'You know what, the heroin is keeping me from getting to my goals', then I can say, 'What you want to do about that?' And if she wants to stop it, I can talk to her about methadone and buprenorphine -- two drugs that have transformed people's lives. But there's the day-to-day reality that in the meantime, until she gets off heroin she's got to get that next fix otherwise she's going to be really sick.”
But he also explains that even if Katrina does get sober, it’s hard to stay sober on the street in an environment filled with temptation. So, ultimately, getting off the street into housing is essential.
“She could work with our case managers and social workers to figure out how she can apply for certain types of housing,” he explains. “Housing is one of the most cost effective interventions … when it comes to changing people's lives. Because it builds a foundation from which other change can occur.”
THE INTERSECTION was made possible with a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the NEH. To hear more from the corner, go to www.theintersection.fm or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.