Homeless But at Home in San Francisco

Homeless But at Home in San Francisco

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Photo: Darnell Boyd (left) graduates from a leadership development program at Hospitality House in San Francisco, led by Joe Wilson (right). 

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

To the average observer, San Francisco’s homeless population might look chaotic, a sign of the widening cracks in the city’s façade. But Darnell Boyd, adrift for years and now living in a shelter in the South of Market neighborhood, not only finds structure in the chaos, but also builds it for the people around him.

Hanging out in front of the main library recently, he saw that another homeless man was having a mental health crisis. Boyd talked the man into coming with him to Hospitality House, a drop-in service center a few blocks away, and remained with him and tried to keep him calm until the police finally had to be called.

“There was definitely a time in my life when I wouldn’t have looked twice at him,” Boyd says. But now, here, he’s come to see people differently.

He’s 55 and has been homeless for about ten years, in cities all over the country – Phoenix, Orlando, D.C., Denver.

He’s one of many people in San Francisco’s aging homeless population who won’t qualify for much (if any) Social Security income when they turn 65, because their history of formal employment has been inconsistent and confined to low-wage work.

Boyd is also an African American man living in a city that has lost most of its black residents. It’s one thing to be a black man in a city where less than 5 percent of the population is black, and another to be black in that city and not have a home.

And yet this is where he would like to stay. Over the decade that he’s been moving around the country, he’s lived in San Francisco off and on, and he keeps coming back.

Born in Chicago, he grew up on the South Side with four siblings. His mother died of a heart attack in 1969, when she was 29. He was 8.

“When my mom died, everything fell apart,” he says. “My father turned into this monster. In the years after she died, we went through the most vicious, ruthless stuff I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He says that his father, a Korean War veteran, was a gambler, and that he and his four siblings spent most of their time on the streets. “Social services didn’t come around then,” he says. The family went to church, but one of his most vivid memories is of a preacher making fun of him and his brother because they weren’t wearing nicer church clothes. “We were wearing winter clothes in the summer to hide that we were getting whipped with an electrical cord,” he says.

Things were bad outside the house, too. “You never knew when you were going to get jumped,” he says. Gangs were recruiting at high schools. He remembers getting beaten severely at a rec center when he was a teenager, in a dispute over a ping-pong game.

“Most people from Chicago in my generation, we didn’t have to plan for our future,” he says. “You knew you were going to end up dead, or in Cook County Jail or the state penitentiary.” He’s been told by a therapist that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s struggled with alcoholism and has burned bridges with family.

Today he has children from past relationships and is behind on his child support payments, which he regrets. His relationship with work has been fraught since he was young. When he was a kid he’d wanted to become a journalist but he didn’t know how. He tried to go into the Navy but only stayed through boot camp. “I got in there and I was fighting just as hard as I was on the streets,” he says. “My mind was messed up.”

It was the same at subsequent jobs he had through the years, mostly working as a security guard. The last time he had a steady job was when he was working at McDonalds when he was in his forties.

“Now I’m so used to being out in the streets. I’m too far gone,” he says.

He stopped drinking last year, when he was living in San Diego. “I started running and it sweat the alcohol out of my system,” he says. He hasn’t done much running since arriving back in San Francisco in December. “Here I run and people start clutching their purses. Somebody’s going to have a heart attack if I run here!”

He says that being poor and black is different from being poor in other communities. “We’re not like the immigrant community. The immigrant community is close-knit. With us it’s every man for himself,” he says.

And yet it’s community that’s keeping him in San Francisco. For him, it’s become a place where people recognize him.

He’s got a small group of guys at the shelter who get together to argue about current events. He makes a stop at the library almost every day to read the New York Times, and he follows the black papers too – the San Francisco Bay View, the L.A. Sentinel, the Washington Afro.

Over the years, he’s also become a fixture of groups that organize on behalf of low-income people, like the Central City SRO Collaborative and Hospitality House. “I join everything,” he says. “I don’t want to sit around doing nothing.”

At organizing meetings throughout the Tenderloin, everybody knows his name. If there’s a rally, or a budget hearing at City Hall, or a voter registration drive, he shows up. He calls himself and the people he organizes with “lobbyists for the broke.” He says that in San Francisco, it feels like poor people have a voice, and he hasn’t gotten that impression elsewhere.

He’d like to live in an SRO, but he’s no longer worried about how he’s going to survive.

“At this point in my life, all I need is one room and a bed and a dresser and a lamp,” he says. And, he might have added, the community he’s building for himself and the people around him. “I’m just going to continue looking out for other people around here.”