Robert Wang wears his hair long down his back, in a ponytail, like an obsidian waterfall. He is 54, well built and straight-backed, with a profile like Aslan, the lion.
I call him the Samurai Warrior, both for his proud carriage and the grace with which he lives with his illness.
Wang is currently a full-time resident of the (ARF) Adult Residential Facility, (essentially a board and care) housed at the San Francisco Behavioral Health Center at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. The pandemic has meant the ARF is on lockdown, so Wang and the other residents can’t go out.
He moved there on July 4, 2020, because his board-and-care home at 822 South Van Ness Ave., (near 19th Street) suddenly shut down. That is “exactly six months and 25 days ago,” he told me when we talked recently. But who’s counting.
For more than 12 years, he’d lived at South Van Ness Manor, a stately three-story Victorian that featured a grand central staircase, an overgrown but green and fragrant side garden, and wide, comfortable front steps where Wang liked to sit, smoke, and watch the world pass by.
This was his home, and that of about 30 other men and women, all diagnosed with a variety of severe, persistent and chronic mental illnesses. There he had autonomy, the freedom to come and go, three meals plus management of his meds, and friends.
Wang was philosophical about losing his home in the middle of a pandemic,
“Well they closed because they said they don’t make enough money, no profit, so I came from there to here. There was no place else to go; I have to follow the procedures. You have to deal with it,” he says, “they are trying to find us all a destination. Just have to wait for the process where it indicates where we are going to go. … I am on some waiting lists. … they say there is nothing available.”
“You know,” he adds cheerfully, “ the food here is sometimes better (at General Hospital) than at the board and care: there it was cafeteria food– they didn’t know how to do vegetables, just boil, boil, boil cabbage and salt, and some kind of fake meatloaf and oatmeal for breakfast, not even noodles or ramen. AND never seafood, (my favorite), ’cause it costs too much, they said. Here we get fresh vegetables and fruit, and good meat, pork chops, gumbo, and rice and eggs.”
Licensed board-and-cares, also known as residential care facilities, receive a government-set monthly rent of $1,058 — just less than $35 a day — from tenants to pay for housing, 24-hour care and three daily meals. The tenants cover that cost with their monthly Supplemental Security Income checks, a combination of federal and state funds for people with disabilities including serious mental illness.
Jocelyn Weiner wrote in 2019 about the loss of more than one-third of San Francisco’s licensed residential facilities in CalMatters. “Much of the decline has been in small, homelike facilities like the grand Victorian at South Van Ness and 19th Street which provide food, laundry and medication help — and are more likely to accept low-income people with mental illness,” she wrote.
Those facilities worked for many like Wang.
“I paid my $1,070 to the board and care, and they took care of food and rent. Then I had around a hundred dollars left over for coffee and cigarettes. For a month. But I knew where I could get gas station coffee, at the car wash, big cup, for $1.50, with free creamers, free sugars,” he added for emphasis, “and I bought a pack of cigarettes for $9 at the smoke shop. It was OK.”
For someone with a stigmatizing diagnosis, Wang is articulate and stable and, while at the board and care home, held a part-time job as a cook at a now-shuttered gallery/restaurant on Folsom Street: Triptych.
Cooking is his skilled tradecraft; he had worked as a chef for years. Once I asked him how he dealt with the voices he often hears (auditory hallucinations), when on the job,
“I just tell them, ‘Don’t bother me now, I’m too busy, can’t you see I am working?’”
He was born in Korea to Chinese parents, and the family moved to San Francisco when he was 13. He attended AP Giannini Middle School in the Sunset district, then dropped out of Lincoln High School and went to work “for my auntie’s restaurants. The best Mandarin Cuisine in San Rafael. So I never got my GED.”
He speaks Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
He worked at Benihana when it was on Old Bayshore Boulevard. He worked for the Mandarin at Ghirardelli Square.
“I was really good with the knives: I could cut vegetables into different shapes: broccoli into flowers and shredded carrots into ribbons. I could make beautiful stir-frys with ginger, garlic and scallions.
“I made a lot of money but I spent a lot of money. I bought a used AUDI; I mostly bought nice clothes. My father’s friend had a restaurant at the Christian Brothers Winery near St. Helena and I cooked there for two years. They had a lot of tourists. I lived in a pretty nice dorm for the workers right at the vineyard, beautiful.”
That was a long time ago.
Now, he lives in another kind of dorm.
“Four or five guys from South Van Ness Manor moved here with me. It’s just from a place to a place to another place. I been to so many places and programs: West End Lodge, Conard House, Clay Street House at Fillmore and Jackson and so many programs I have forgotten some of the names. I have gotten used to these kinds of environments; you have to deal with it. What is different with the pandemic is I can’t go out, I can’t go anywhere, and we have to wear masks, staff and clients both have to wear masks.”
Before the pandemic, when he lived at the ramshackle elegant old Victorian at 822 South Van Ness, he had his rituals,
“I would take the 22-Fillmore all the way to Fillmore and Jackson. Nice neighborhood. Great restaurants, even though I couldn’t afford it. From there I would walk around all the way to Union street to Chinatown and Broadway, go through the Broadway tunnel and eat a great Chinese lunch: $7 for noodles with bok choy, or fish cakes and scallops, pan fried noodles. Plus $2 for tip.”
Now he gets one monthly outing: to cash his SSI check, always accompanied by a staff member. Pre-pandemic, the residents could get passes and leave the facility. No more. “There are no outings, I guess ’cause of the virus. There is a TV we have in the lobby, but I don’t watch it.
“I listen to music, 103.7. I like ’80s music, the British invasion, my favorites: George Michael, and Depeche Mode.
“Around the 5th or 6th, I go to cash my check at 19th and Mission. At the check cashing place. And after sometimes we go for coffee at Martha Brothers. Then I can buy cigarettes.”
There is a patio on the ground floor of the ARF (Adult Residential Facility) where Wang and fellow residents can get some sun. “Every morning at 7:30, after breakfast, I walk around the patio, that’s all I can do, what can I do? I get used to it, this environment. For 20 years I live in these kinds of places.”
He emphasizes, “All the staff here are nice people. Before the virus, I would go to Mission Mental Health to see my psychiatrist, now I have not talked to him in a while. What can you do? I can’t even get a burrito ’cause the delivery costs more than the burrito. It’s the virus. We are stuck in the facility. CNN says more than 400,000 people die in one year.”
Wang’s tone is matter-of-fact. He is not upset or resentful or nostalgic or angry. And a month ago, he got the Covid-19 vaccine. “They came and vaccinated all staff and residents. My arm was sore for a day or two, that’s it. Now maybe they can find me a new board and care.”