A Neighborhood Fixture in Spite of Eviction

A Neighborhood Fixture in Spite of Eviction

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of The San Francisco Chronicle's
SF Homeless Project

Albert “Nick” Sutton is an easy man to spot. In a city where everybody complains about how filthy the street is, he’s the one with the broom.

An Army veteran with a Section 8 housing voucher, he was evicted from his apartment in SoMa last fall. He’s closing in on 60 and is in remission from chronic myeloid leukemia.

Growing up in Hunters Point in the ‘60s with four sisters and a single mom, he and his siblings all had chores. His mother would sweep up the street by their home at 3rd and Kirkwood.

Even before he got evicted from his place at 9th and Tehama, he was doing the same.

“I just started sweeping. It was something to do. I try to do something positive, keep the neighborhood clean,” he says. “I’m a sorry person if I can’t sweep with a broom.”

People living around the Tehama Street alleyway between 8th and 9th started paying him to keep the sidewalks clean and wash their cars. He’s often stooped over his broom and dustpan, his face mostly hidden, and yet every other person who passes by says, “Hi Nick.”

He was stationed in Germany in the years after the end of the Vietnam War. “When I came home, I couldn’t adapt to the civilian world,” he says. He worked as a butcher and a welder. He was serving time at San Quentin in the ‘90s when he got sick; it started as a cough that wouldn’t go away.

After the eviction, he had nowhere to sleep. He worried about staying in a shelter, in close quarters with many other people, because of his weakened immune system. And he lost all his belongings; he says he wasn’t allowed back into the building to get his things. But he kept doing the work out on the street. “People trust me,” he says. “I have a lot of jobs to do.”

Back when he was a teenager, he’d been a boxer at a now-gone gym on Mission Street. “It was about respect,” he says. “The one thing you do is don’t run.”

Fall became a wet winter. Sometimes he could get the money together for a hotel room and sometimes he couldn’t. He kept coming back to the street where everybody knew his name.

During a fierce overnight storm in January, he spent the whole night outside. In the early morning hours when it was still dark, a neighbor arriving at her office on 9th Street found him leaning against a building and told him to come inside. She gave him a blanket and he took a nap on her couch. He thinks that if she hadn’t been there, he might have died of exposure.

“If I die, I die in Frisco,” he says.

Months went by; no units available, no units available. One day he was in the alley washing an Audi. Someone called the police because they thought he was trying to break into the car. “I’m not supposed to be standing next to a car like that,” he says. He says the police had their guns pointed at him before anyone noticed his bucket and all the cleaning products.

Winter turned to spring, and he found out there might be a place, up on McAllister in the Tenderloin. Weeks went by though, and it looked like the room might be a phantom.

But in late April, he moved in.

“It’s good to put a key in a lock,” he says. The room is small, but there’s enough space next to the bed for a huge papasan chair that he sleeps in sometimes because it’s so comfortable.

Every day he rides his bike back over to Tehama.

“I’ve almost got too many cars I’m washing now. I want to hire somebody to work with me,” he says. “I like doing what I do. It’s better than sitting up in the house. The mind is the devil’s workshop.”

He has a 7-year-old daughter who lives in the East Bay with her mother. He hopes she might be able to come visit sometime.

“I want her to know who I am,” he says.

Photo: Anna Challet / New America Media