John Ratliff, the Birdman, sits on a bench on 16th and Mission Streets, watching the birds peck rice off the cement in San Francisco, on October 28, 2016. By Julio Marcial

On a recent afternoon, as the 22-Fillmore bus rumbled by every 15 minutes, John “Swan” Ratliff sat hunched over at the 16th and Valencia Muni shelter, taking long drags from a cheap cigarette. To many a passerby, he was just another unhoused old man dying slowly on the streets of San Francisco. 

But he’s not just anybody. Ratliff has been a regular fixture along 16th Street for decades. He was once memorialized in a mural on Clarion Alley doing what he loves best: feeding the pigeons. And now, he stands to suffer the fate of so many of the aging homeless residents with mental health issues: dying on the street. 

Ratliff has many names: The Lone Star Swan, Saint Swan, Poet, the Birdman, or just John. In a past life, he was an award-winning journalist. But for years, he has fed pigeons and has produced a one-page periodical in which he waxes poetic about the living creatures few people care to notice. 

Some “believe that belief in the soul creates the soul,” he told me. “But I believe all things have souls: trees, birds, mice.” 

When Ratliff disappears from the streets or becomes too ill to live outside, people notice — and they help. That is what happened several months ago after Ratliff spent a few months in the hospital. 

Kenshin Shimayama, a friend of Ratliff’s, and BART Director Bevan Dufty coordinated to find Ratliff housing in February. This was a challenge: While Shimayama said he respects the work of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, “I was perpetually greeted with the impression they were unwilling to accommodate his mental illness.” 

That’s unfortunate. Some 39 percent of 8,011 homeless residents counted in 2019 reported suffering from psychiatric or emotional conditions, and 37 percent reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Dufty did not go into the specifics of his efforts to help move Ratliff inside, but he confirmed that he coordinated with the city and Shimayama to find a solution. 

It proved to be short-lived. Ratliff was booted from the hotel sometime in July.

An employee of the 16th Street Hotel, a single-room occupancy establishment at 3161 16th St., said Ratliff was kicked out because he was, essentially, being himself. 

“He kept throwing things out the window and feeding the birds,” said the employee who did not give a name. “We told him many times to not throw things out the window, and he was feeding the pigeons — that’s why” he was kicked out. 

Ratliff, when asked, agreed. He said his window opened to a neighboring roof where seagulls and pigeons hung out. He said he would throw his food scraps to them. “We’d have our little rendezvous,” he said. “Then the hotel said, ‘Knock it off, this is pissing us off’ — then they threw me out.” 

“Then my legs went bad again,” he said. 

He lifted the cuffs of his pants and showed me his legs. They were raw and covered in green pus. They had grown worse since being kicked out of his room, he said, as had his general health. The 78-year-old man coughed frequently and looked tired. 

A mural of John Ratliff in front of Adobe Books titled “Saint Francis: Past, Present, and Future,” painted by Daniel Doherty, a local artist. The mural is located in Clarion alley of the Mission District in San Francisco. This photo was taken on October 28, 2016 by Julio Marcial.

“Living outside, sleeping on the street in freezing cold, everything that lifestyle entailed — it could be argued that’s what he wanted and was best for him at the time,” Shimayama, his friend, told me over the phone. “That’s certainly no longer the case.”  

Ratliff may be one of the more difficult cases of homelessness — but he is one of a growing number. Some 3,028 homeless residents, according to the latest point-in-time count, are “chronically homeless” — meaning, they’ve experienced homelessness for a year or longer and also have “a disabling condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing,” according to the report. That’s a 42 percent increase from 2017 when the city counted 2,138 chronically homeless individuals. 

Ratliff has lived outside, not for one or two years — but for decades. His friends and family say he suffers from mental illness, and because of that, even accepting housing is difficult for him, much less staying in a housing situation that is not qualified to understand his needs. 

They “basically shoved him into a cookie-cutter that he wasn’t going to fit into,” Shimayama said.  

Shimayama, who has experienced homelessness in the past, added that he worried Ratliff would have trouble with a supportive housing case management system, given his mental state and way of being. 

Dufty said that, during an earlier attempt to intervene, Ratliff had expressed a reticence to go inside: If he spent his Social Security check on housing, he wouldn’t have enough to feed his flock.

“I was pretty clear a traditional approach wasn’t going to work,” Dufty said. 

Ratliff eventually agreed to be housed soon after Shimayama posted on Facebook in February, but only stayed inside for a few months. 

It’s not surprising he didn’t stop feeding pigeons,” Dufty said. “It’s his life.” 

The BART director, previously the District 8 supervisor and the city’s “homeless czar,” said that Ratliff should not be living outdoors. But it is an outcome that happens too often in the city. Dufty said he frequently sees people at the highest level of need being evicted for minor nuisances like hoarding. 

This is why we have so many sick people on the street,” Dufty said. “We should be trying to encourage changes in [Ratliff’s] behavior that will help him stay housed.”  

Dufty also said Ratliff needs more intensive care of the sort he could receive at the Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments on Fulton Street, which include 120 units of supportive housing for adults coming out of “high-risk homelessness.” 

(While Ratliff’s condition is worsening in the streets, the city, meanwhile, is aiming to repurpose 41 beds at San Francisco General Hospital earmarked for permanently housing the severely mentally ill into serving as a temporary homeless shelter. These beds, additionally, were largely left unfilled — for years.)

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) said it could not comment on Ratliff’s case “due to protected health information policies.” Tanya Ellis, a spokeswoman for the department, said the department is, essentially, not liable. 

“What I can tell you is that the 16th Street/Mission Hotel is not an HSH property and HSH therefore does not have purview over its eviction methods or policies,” she wrote in an email. 

Ratliff said that despite his initial reluctance, he didn’t mind living at the 16th Street Hotel. (He did not like the idea of moving into a Navigation Center.) 

Regardless, now he’s taken to sleeping at the 16th and Valencia bus shelter. “I used to sleep in the doorways” but most are now gated up, he said. “I don’t like to sleep sitting up, but this (bus stop) is the one near the things that are familiar to me.” 

He nonetheless continues to write by the type-written page. 

“Sometimes miracles occur,” he wrote in an Aug. 11 issue of Rag Rag, his zine. “Angels shringgged the idea over the land, it dript off the edge like sherwin paint! It fell on the sleeping mind of a frail old crippled man, with little dream proof of the soul … ” 

John Ratliff holds his pet pigeon Zeene, who cannot fly, in the Mission District on October 28, 2016. Ratliff has become known as the Birdman, the man who feeds the pigeons with rice, but he is also an award-winning journalist. By Julio Marcial.

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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11 Comments

  1. Great piece, Julian. It’s sad that the city seems it proper not to compel into care those who can not properly care for themselves, but freedom to lead one’s self to an early demise seems to be the progressive preference.

  2. Andrew used to let him sleep in the basement at Adobe Books, and eventually had to kick him out because he was feeding the roaches and the rats. He’s been on the Plaza for decades now. Poor guy. He’s the Emperor Norton of our day.

  3. Having already lived to 78, Ratliff has actually done pretty well. David Koch(who had $50 Billion) and Peter Fonda both died at 79.

  4. Have seen John around the neighborhood for a long, long time. His more recent choice of residence are the bus stops for the #22 along 16th/Valencia. I’m not gonna lie, as an older lady, I need to sit to await the bus. It’s kinda gross, with the accompanying smells. What can I say?

  5. Matt Gonzalez introduced me to him 20 years ago.

    John was camped in front of the bookstore.

    He kinda mumbled but we understood each other.

    I’m a fixed income guy but I gave him a fin.

    He dug into his overcoat and gave me a poem.

    Beautiful.

    It’s around here somewhere.

    Fast forward 20 years and I saw him couple
    months ago and gave him another fiver
    and he …

    get ready for this …

    Said: “Thanks h.”

    And dug in and gave me another original poem.

    He remembered me.

    What’s really going on between the ears of any
    of these ‘special’ people?

    It’s around here somewhere.

    Go Niners!

    h.

  6. “Swan” is a US military Veteran and as such is eligible to receive full housing assistance, medical care and support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have worked with unhoused veterans for almost a decade now and know that he is entitled to such services. The VA has a housing solutions for folks in Swan’s position and I have seen veterans who have been in worse situations than Swan’s improve their health, and overall livelihood through their services. Did the previous advocates coordinate with the VA for Swan’s transition to housing?

  7. Before schizophrenia took over, John was young, vital, bright, perceptive, and an extraordinary poet. I knew him then and admired his creative freedom of expression as a writer, actor, and human being!

  8. Thirty years ago I was addicted to heroin and supported my habit walking Capp Street. I often sat with Swan and we waxed philosophy and recited poetry to each other swapping ideas and words. He was kind to me during a period of my life when a little kindness went a long way. I would love to see him and have the chance to wax philosophical with him again. He was precious to me then and I love him still.

  9. John is my brother, older by a year. We communicated for years and I would visit. But he shut me out a couple years ago. He wanted my help getting his property and cash from the ER before he was transferred to rehab for his legs. I told him he would have to sign a POA and that ended our relationship. I subscribe to The Mission to stay in touch with the community. I’ll watch this site for news of him.

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