I was just about ready to leave for work one morning about a year ago when the doorbell rang. It was Zach.
I had met Zach (his name has been changed) at a renovation project going on next door. He’s one of those guys who is an expert on just about everything. He would say, “Yes, I am a journeyman electrician,” or “I have spent most of my time engineering heating and air conditioning systems.” Unfortunately, Zach spent more time talking than working, and at some point found himself “off the job right now.”
That morning he stood on my doorstep in shorts and a Ramones T-shirt. They were, well, not clean.
“Hey man, could you help me with something?” he asked.
“So what do you need, Zach?” I asked, thinking that “All I need is $20 to get me back on my feet” would be the narrative. It wasn’t.
He had lost his car — which was also his home — somewhere in Bernal, and wanted a ride to find it. We jumped into my car. I was struck, more like slapped, by Zach’s zesty and ripe aroma. It had been a while. I rolled down the windows and we struck off for Bernal, starting our hunt on the far end of Cortland.
“Turn left here, George. I never park further down that way. OK, right here…now, slow down,” Zach instructed, scanning the parked cars. We passed a clump of bushes.
“Stop here, I slept here last night. That’s where I left my stuff.” Sure enough, he jumped out and retrieved a backpack. The search proceeded.
As we traveled down Jarboe for the third time, I said, “Zach, I think your car is gone.” He had already called the cops, so we turned back toward the Mission.
Glancing at the figure slumped next to me, I couldn’t help myself. “You know, Zach, I’m neither psychologist nor historian, but I can tell you for sure that what you are doing isn’t working.”
“Man, I have had some really hard times lately. I mean, one goof-up after another. Every time I get going, something goes wrong. Just like my car…it was my home, all my stuff.”
“Well, are you ready to try something different?”
“George, I have tried everything, nothing works. I just mess everything up,” he said with no resolve.
“OK, I am going to throw out some ideas and if you have tried them we won’t do a repeat. On the other hand, if it’s new, we’ll give it a shot. What do you think?”
“I’ll try anything, because as of this morning I have absolutely nothing to lose,” he agreed.
“Ever been to the employment place on Mission Street? You know, the place close to Cesar Chavez Street?”
“Yeah, nothing there but lots of long lines, and I just don’t have time to work that system,” Zach said as the citadel of employment passed on the left.
“OK, so that place is out,” I quickly replied. “How about Salvation Army?”
“But I’m a Buddhist,” he said.
“You know, Zach, I don’t think they care.”
He looked up with a “now maybe that’s an idea” look on his face. “Never been there, have you?” We agreed to give it a try.
Two men who looked like they had heard all the stories and perhaps told a few themselves greeted us. I started into the morning’s story.
One of the men interceded, turning to Zach. “Have you been clean and sober for two weeks? We don’t even consider anyone who hasn’t.”
“Yes,” Zach said, with the look of a poker player with a really bad hand.
“Sorry, you have to be referred to get into our program, which is six months long,” the man replied.
“So, where do we apply?” I asked.
“Look, why don’t you two go down to the place on Valencia between 21st and 22nd streets? They can probably help you,” he said, gesturing toward the other location. We thanked them and headed back to the car.
We found a parking place almost in front of the second Salvation Army place. Unmetered parking close to where we were headed? It must be a sign. We entered and proceeded down one of those easy access ramps. A bunch of seniors were talking and enjoying a cup of coffee. Zach dove both hands into some doughnuts that were set out for the regulars.
“Easy there, Captain, leave some for the others,” I laughed.
“Yeah, I am hungry, but I’m a diabetic and the doughnuts aren’t any good for me,” Zach said as he slipped an old-fashioned into his pocket and ate the other.
Then I noticed the saint for whom we had been searching. Seated behind a card table was a roundish woman of 70. Her face was as cheerful as the snowmen on her hand-knitted sweater. It was nowhere near Christmas, but it is San Francisco, so everything made sense. We were about to see a miracle.
I explained about the stolen clothes, and suggested that Zach’s immediate needs were simple: a shower, some new clothes and a place to sleep for a couple of days.
“Well, we don’t do anything like that here, but…I just know we can find you the perfect place,” she said as she put on her glasses and opened a large binder filled with plastic pages.
Soon she scribbled out the address for the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center at 165 Capp Street.
Several packed shopping carts were bike-locked to the front of the building. We fit right in: me in my work clothes and Zach in his longish shorts actually made something of a fashion statement. Two other ragtag guys were approaching as we verified the address. One tipped his hat: “Good morning, ladies.” Then, realizing his gender slip, he mumbled something, then turned with a smile and said, “Oh well,” knowing we’d understand.
Once inside, there was a scene not unlike the cantina in “Star Wars.” All kinds of people drifted around, chatting. “I am going to help you,” said a man with a sweet Caribbean accent.
“Yes,” said Zach. His head was down, which was unusual for a guy who had an endless trove of stories. I started my introduction: “My friend here has been sleeping in his car until last night. Someone stole it. He has lost everything. He would like a place to take a shower, get some clean clothes and maybe get a couple of good nights’ sleep.”
Our West Indian shepherd said, “You have come to the right place. That’s all we do, and we ask no questions and make no big demands. Just be civil and remember, you can’t stay more than seven days. Does that sound good?”
“Yes,” said Zach, with a little more enthusiasm in his voice.
The guy slid Zach a clipboard with a pen on a rubber band. “Just fill in as many details as you can. I know some of them are difficult. Just do the best you can.”
The greeter, hands in pockets, watched Zach writing madly. Then he glanced at me with a gesture of instant accommodation and handed me another clipboard. I told him, “I’m OK right now, I still have my car.”
“Sure, of course, but if you ever want to, you now know how easy it all is,” he said.
That was about a year ago. Recently I was at Lumberman Supply on Folsom at 16th Street. I saw Zach, in the sun, leaning against the Muni barn. He was reading a book. He looked no better and no worse. I crossed the street to say hello.
We joked a little about looking for his car. Zach said he was out of work again because of some really bad dental problems. I nodded as a way of saying, “I understand.”
“You take care, Zach,” I said as I walked back across Folsom. “OK, man,” he said, and resumed reading.
Career Link Mission Center
3120 Mission St.
Open Mon.-Fri., 8-5 p.m.; appointments necessary for some workshops and services, best to call ahead.
Mission Neighborhood Resource Center
165 Capp St.
Open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-noon, 2-7 p.m.; Sat: 7 a.m.-noon; Thurs., 6-8 p.m. is women-only
Drop-in respite from the streets offering bathroom access, showers, laundry services and lockers, targeting Mission homeless communities and those at risk, in particular Spanish-speaking immigrants, LGBT, women, active drug users and SRO tenants. MNRC is a CHANGES site for shelter bed reservations in the single adult system. Must be age 18 or over.
1156 Valencia St.
Adult Program Services, Food & Nutrition, Correctional Services, Bible Study, Correspondence, Disaster Services, Emergency Assistance, Emergency Financial Assistance, Family Counseling.
The Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers provide spiritual, social and emotional assistance for men and women who have lost the ability to cope with their problems and provide for themselves. Each center offers residential housing, work and group and individual therapy, all in a clean, wholesome environment. The physical and spiritual care that program participants receive prepares them to re-enter society and return to gainful employment. Many of those who have been rehabilitated are reunited with their families and resume a normal life.
Adult Rehabilitation Center
1500 Valencia St. near 26th
Mon.-Fri.: 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Provides a long-term (6-12 month) residential rehabilitation program for men and women with substance abuse and other social or spiritual problems. Residents receive spiritual counseling, individual and family counseling and group therapy. Residents must be physically able to work, seeking treatment for substance abuse, detoxed before entering, agree to participate in weekly 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, chapel services and Bible studies.
Harbor Light Center
1275 Harrison St.
The Harbor Light Center is a live in/work out program for men and women with a focus on the underlying roots of addiction through education on substance abuse, providing group sessions and individual counseling while dealing with medical problems, family relationships, preparation for independent living, schooling and employment.