“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” — Oscar Wilde
The Mission District is saturated with memories for Rachel Church. Stories bubble out of every street corner or blacktop or fetid alley. These are not happy stories for Church but, she prays, her troubled past is just that — the past.
Church’s story in this city began here, secluded beneath the trees at 17th and Treat, which is where the young prostitutes start out; Church broke in here 21 years ago, at age 14. Johns can pull in without being conspicuous. “B-girls,” as the police refer to them, can scatter and hide when the police make an entrance. The more experienced women matriculate to Capp Street; the cops, Church says, are not inclined to interfere once they know you. “They mess with you less often. You’ve probably dated some. I did.”
“Dates” took place between parked cars in a lot on Capp between 17th and 18th. It’s fenced off now. It wasn’t then.
A stone’s throw away are the places she scored heroin or the corner shops where she washed her hair on the sidewalk with a hose and bought three-dollar bottles of vodka with handfuls of spare change she’d begged for. Down the street is St. Peter’s Catholic Church, where she slept on the steps, waking up to knock on doors pleading for alcohol after the liquor stores closed for the night. Around the corner is where they parked the mobile home where she in 2017 put on her second-hand, pink bridal gown and clambered off to City Hall to get married. And, all along the Mission corridor are the stores where she gazed, longingly, at the princess dresses or jewelry within, only to be jolted by the half-naked, barefoot woman reflected back at her in the front window.
Church, 35, is on the other side of the window now, fully clothed and shod and enjoying a cup of coffee at Jim’s Restaurant. Coffee is her drink of choice. There’s always a pot of it at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and she drinks her fair share of it. Not so long ago, Church slept not one meter away from this booth on the cement outside this restaurant. But she’s inside now. She aims to stay inside. And she has a message for all the people who knew her from before — and, when you think about it, all the people who didn’t: “I am enjoying life. I am alive. I made it.”
Dostoyevsky, who was led before a firing squad only to be reprieved at the last moment, wrote of the almost overwhelming clarity that life takes on in the face of such an experience.
This is relatable for Rachel Church. There were plenty of near-death experiences scattered among a decadeslong existence as a street junkie. She can now take joy in even the most banal of things: doing homework, riding the bus, random conversations, cups of coffee with reporters at Jim’s Restaurant. “When you’ve come so close to dying from an addiction and then you get the opportunity to learn and grow, it feels good,” she says. “I am taking in every single thing right now, like a child would.”
Church forfeited much of her own childhood. She grew up in the Northern California mountain town of Pioneer, and, as a high-school freshman, she fled what she describes as a drug-addled home in a drug-addled community, and made her way to San Francisco. Here, she promptly became a drug-addled teenage prostitute.
“There were so many rumors: She ran away from home. She was picked up by a trucker,” recalls childhood friend April Salberg. “I did see her once after high school, at the Walmart in Jackson. She was all strung out on God knows what. We walked down the same aisle and talked a bit and then she told me she’d come right back. I never saw her again. That was eight years ago.”
Church’s life took a fateful turn when she was 19 and ran into Mario Di Tano, an Italian immigrant from Lucca 48 years her senior. When he saw her dragging her possessions along Lombard Street he did what so many other men in her life did not do: He helped.
Di Tano’s own child had died young. He became something of a surrogate father to Church. He let her stay from time to time at his apartment in the Marina. He let her store her things in the closet. He bought her books. He goaded her into attending City College, which she did, while living out of a Winnebago parked across from Balboa Park BART. In 2009, she earned a degree.
Church had quit heroin. She had a diploma in hand. And that’s when things went to hell.
In 2010, Church says she witnessed a prolonged, violent domestic situation between some of her relatives. Her response was to head straight to the Mission, knock back an entire bottle of wine, and immediately resume a life on the street. For the next four years, her raison d’être was to obtain and consume that next bottle of booze.
“It was crazy,” says Di Tano, 82, a kindly faced, soft-spoken man with a pronounced Italian accent. “I think I lost her. I cannot help anymore. She start drinking. This is not the way I want it.”
“There was a time several years ago,” recalls Officer Robert Rueca of the San Francisco Police Department, “that there wouldn’t be a day we didn’t contact Rachel at some level of hardship. When she was intoxicated, if she was not able to take care of herself, we’d take her in and release her when she was sober. That happened countless times. And, a number of times, she was arrested. I myself arrested her in October of 2013.”
Among homeless professionals, Church was known as a “HUMS” — a High User of Multiple Services. “She was gravely disabled,” recalls former Homeless Outreach Team member Maraea Master. “She would be totally incapacitated. No shoes in the rain. You know she didn’t love this trauma. But she was so broken. I felt helpless: We got to go home at the end of the day, but Rachel was still out there.”
Until she wasn’t: In 2014, Church tells us she was found asleep in a stolen car. She spent, by her count, 76 days in County Jail. You can’t beg for drinks there. She dried out. She received treatment. She went through drug court and expunged much of her record (her rap sheet is, regardless, still around six pages long).
There was still more drama to come. Church married a man she describes as a well-dressed crack-cocaine dealer roughly twice her age. He was living out of a motor home and she had a child with him — prior to his untimely death only months after their marriage following a lifetime of swallowing his supply when the heat was on.
So that happened. But, through it all, Church has mostly kept her head above water. She has attended classes at City College and San Francisco State. Order has replaced chaos in her life; she reports to a small army of counselors and therapists and meticulously blocks out her days on her online calendar.
She has lived in a succession of increasingly stable shelters and housing programs. And, during the course of reporting this story, she was awarded a permanent Section 8 voucher and will, as soon as next month, move out of transitional housing and into a two-bedroom flat in Laurel Village with her 2-year-old daughter.
So, she made it. And she wants the people who are now where she used to be — shoeless, homeless, hopeless — to know this can be done. Those of us fortunate to go home at the end of the day would do well to take note as well. Even the worst-off people we meet on the streets can be helped. There’s so much more we can do.
And yet, Church’s story is also a rumination on randomness. Even with the benefit of myriad city programs and the altruism of a man like Mario Di Tano, she still stumbled into a four-year black hole. She has climbed out of it through sheer willpower — but also with great help and no small amount of luck. It did not take one program for her to succeed but many, all working together in sometimes unpredictable fashions. Treatment without housing, for example, would not have been useful. Nor would housing without treatment. It was a concerted — and somewhat random — effort that led to this point.
“It’s always serendipitous,” says Master, the former HOT Team member, who now assists the homeless and formerly homeless at City College — including Rachel Church. “What works? It’s always different outliers. And it all has to kind of happen at once.”
And it can all fall apart at once, too. Church knows this. Everyone does. But Church is confident that, this time, it won’t.
As we walk along 24th and Folsom, Rachel Church’s old friends recognize her. And come running.
“It’s you!” cry the shambling, red-faced, bleary-eyed old men who speckle this neighborhood. “You’re alive! You’re okay! You’re beautiful!”
These are the men she used to sleep alongside on the church steps; the men she drank with and passed out with and spent her life with. And while she’s back in the old neighborhood, she promises she’ll never be back.
“Rachel!” shouts an old man from the bus stop across 24th. “We love you!”
She smiles, and shouts back a lesson she’s learned from a lifetime spent on these very streets: “FIRST YOU HAVE TO LOVE YOURSELF!”