Carlos Gutierrez, the 38-year-old co-founder of Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY), was found dead in his apartment in Bernal Heights Sunday afternoon.

Although the official cause of death has not yet been determined, his family said he had long suffered from sleep apnea. His 17-year-old son and 21-year old daughter discovered their father at noon on Sunday.

“Dad and I were supposed to go to a Giants game,” said his son, Elias. Instead, he saw his father on the ground, checked his pulse, and noticed he was “discolored and pale.” As his sister Cassandra called 911, a doctor who lives next door confirmed that Gutierrez was dead.

“For a moment, I laid with him, I kissed him and I told him I loved him,” his son said on Monday night as he gathered with his family and friends, all of whom were still shaken by Gutierrez’s sudden death.  

Gutierrez’s story is truly a Mission District story — one of a young Latino man sucked into the neighborhood’s gang violence in the 1990s, and later made a 180-degree turnaround to help establish an organization that helps young men and women find their paths.

“He was a true a warrior and a son of the Mission,” said Socorro Gamboa, 62, the principal at Real Alternatives Program, the high school on Bryant and 23rd Streets for at-risk youth where Gutierrez began his transformation.

Gutierrez was born October 30, 1979, at Kaiser Hospital on Geary Boulevard, and grew up in an apartment on the corner of 22nd and South Van Ness, where much of his family has lived for the last four decades. His father, James Gutierrez, was rarely present, said his mother, Erendira Leyva-Haus. A man named Bill Barrios had served as a stand-in father since Gutierrez was 12, said Gutierrez’s 35-year-old sister, Ella Leyva.  

“This block was all single moms,” Gutierrez’s mother said, sitting on the porch of the 22nd Street house Monday evening. “Nobody had a dad; they all had each other.”

At a very young age, she said, he enjoyed Nintendo games, G.I. Joe, and playing baseball with other kids on the block. “He was a mama’s boy,” said his sister. “He was attached to her hip.”

But as Gutierrez moved into his teenage years, he was drawn to the gang life that dominated the Mission’s streets in the ‘90s. In those days, there would be different gangs — or “sets” — on nearly every corner of the Mission, according to two of his close friends.

“You had to be really careful,” recalled his friend Mario Sandoval, 40, who met Gutierrez in the third grade. “One step in the wrong direction and you could get your ass whooped by five or six guys.”

It happened that many of their friends were Norteños, Sandoval said, and that’s what he and Gutierrez became. He described Gutierrez as one who deeply believed in the lifestyle and, even as a teenager, he stood out as a leader.

“It wasn’t just the color — it was about your neighborhood, where you lived, where you grew up, and what you personally represent,” Sandoval said. “And I personally stood by him on that front.”

Gutierrez’s mother said that during that period, she prayed for her son to live “because everyone around him was getting stabbed or shot.”

Sandoval agreed: “We lost a lot of friends.”

Gutierrez and Sandoval followed each other from Hawthorne Elementary School (now Cesar Chavez Elementary School) to Horace Mann Middle School. In high school, after a short stint at International Studies Academy, they split up; Gutierrez went to J. Eugene McAteer High School. But his life there did not go well.  

Then, in 1995, as a high school junior, Gutierrez started attending RAP High School, which occupied one floor and five classrooms of a building at 23rd and Bryant.

When Socorro Gamboa, the principal, met Gutierrez for the first time, the young man had his knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows. She told him to pull it up, and said he was surprised when she said she just wanted to see his eyes. “What I noticed about him is that he was unique,” Gamboa recalled.

Gutierrez went on to demonstrate an unusual interest in school, moving from classroom to classroom during breaks and hanging out with the teachers, she said. One of those teachers, Debora Koffler, said he took a special liking to her U.S. history class. “He was outspoken, and smart, and very quick and thoughtful,” Koffler said. “He cared about learning.”

She noted that he earned the nickname “Sleepy” because he, like Koffler, had a lazy eye. “He was definitely my guy,” she said.

Gutierrez’s mother, Erendira Leyva-Haus, sits on the porch of Gutierrez’s childhood. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

At that time, as well, Gutierrez enjoyed political debates with his aunt, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, now a Berkeley School Board member. “We would always argue politics,” she said. “We would always go back and forth.”

Leyva-Cutler said that Gutierrez’s time at RAP changed him. “There was a large community that surrounded him at RAP,” she said.

Around this time, when Gutierrez was just 16, he and his girlfriend, Heidy Rosales, had their daughter, Cassandra. “I moved in with his family on 22nd as soon as I found out I was pregnant with Cassandra,” she said. “His family took me in.”  

After graduating from RAP, he eventually followed Rosales to Sonoma County and attended Sonoma State, where he majored in Political Science. After graduating in 2008, Gutierrez worked as a sales representative for Enterprise Car Rentals, and later was an organizer with the Teamsters.

On Monday night, sitting in the room where Gutierrez grew up — now populated with three treadmills and a desk piled high with memorabilia — Sandoval, Gutierrez’s childhood friend, took a sip from his beer. He said that few people from Gutierrez’s earlier days on the street would recognize the man he became.

“At some point he realized [gang life] is not raza,” Sandoval said. “That’s not what this culture can be or would like to be.”

In 2013 Gutierrez began full-time work with Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY), which works with gang members and formerly incarcerated youth. Gutierrez, in fact, helped start the organization in 1999 with several former RAP students at the high school’s building. It has since grown into an organization with four full-time employees and a budget of close to $500,000.

Gutierrez, however, had not been fully involved until recently.

“Even when he wasn’t part of it, he always felt that HOMEY was a part of him,” said Mauricio Quijada, also a founding member, who met Gutierrez when he was 12.

“It’s going to be difficult to adjust without his presence,” said Luna Marie Morrell, the Youth Programs Coordinator at HOMEY. “But we have a lot of support and there’s a lot of love. I believe he will be honored. I know that without a doubt.”

Over the years HOMEY has worked for political justice campaigns while also providing practical services for the community, like in-school programming, direct intervention with youth and young adults on the street, and in-jail support. Before he died, Gutierrez was working with incarcerated men through HOMEY’s work-preparedness program at the San Francisco county jail at 850 Bryant.

“We always called Carlos the ‘protector of the temple,’” says Morrell — the temple being HOMEY.

Gutierrez had a quick sense of humor, which Morrell described as medicinal. She could always spot a “Carlos-ism— jokes of his that would be repeated by others.

For their part, his children and former wife remembered him as someone they could count on.

“We constantly talked,” said his 17-year-old son, Elias. “We talked about difficulties of being Latino and trying to go to college and succeed in this world and this society.”

“We made a great team,” said Rosales about their current relationship. “His kids were everything to him.”  

His daughter, Cassandra, said he cared about her and her brother more than anyone. “He always tried to make things work for us,” she said. “He would always try to call me back and try to fix the problem.”

On the night before he died, Gutierrez had plans to visit his partner Dolly Sithounnolat’s family, but he stayed in Bernal so that he could check on a friend who was in the hospital, Sithounnolat said. “He wanted to make sure she was okay,” she said.

The next day, around noon, she received a call from Elias and Cassandra about their father.

Cassandra also remarked on her father’s journey to redemption. “He finally made it back to the city and finally found a spot in the neighborhood,” she said of the Bernal Heights home he had moved into only in March. “It’s something that brings me closure that he died at home — he did make it home.”

A memorial will be held Friday, July 20, at Duggan’s Funeral Service (3434 17th Street). Public viewing begins at 3 p.m. and the funeral ceremony begins at 5 p.m. A reception will be held at 1990 Folsom Street at 7:30 p.m. The family will also be accepting donations for Gutierrez’s children’s college fund. For more information please contact: Beatrizleyvac@gmail.com

Charlotte Silver contributed reporting to this story.