A man named Sam

Under his many layers of clothing, Sam was frail. I’d offered to help him out of his seat; he’d been struggling to do so himself. I’d assumed he’d be able to get up on his own, and my “help” was really more for show, like when you offer to help someone off the ground and, taking your hand, they manage their own way up without you ever having to pull.

As I forklifted my arms under his, it became apparent that if I didn’t hoist him up, Sam wasn’t going to budge.

I could feel his ribs pressed against my arms. I was afraid if I squeezed too hard, he’d turn to dust.

Sam’s face was etched with the lines that map a hard life. At 63, he estimates he’s spent at least eight years homeless. It may have been longer. Sam doesn’t remember the numbers clearly. Having suffered three strokes, his memory is fuzzy.

Born in Trinidad, Colorado, Sam grew up in a mountain town. He was a love child, “which is a bastard,” he said. His father was Native American, which accounts for Sam’s dark, thick locks, now sprinkled with strands of silver. His father wasn’t around for most of his life. Sam and his older brother and sister were raised by his mom. While caring for the three, she went to school. She was the first of her family to graduate high school, but she could never shake the stigma in a small town of being a single mom.

Drawn to San Francisco’s liberal and free-spirited culture, Sam moved to the city in the early ‘80s. He took odd jobs as a cook, then later as a bartender. He rented a room in one of city’s many single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, which often consisted of kitchen-less bedrooms with a communal bathroom down the hall.

In the ‘90s, while working at a bar, Sam lost his job. Like many in the city, he’d been living paycheck to paycheck. Within a month, he was homeless. He was 45.

“I had no savings,” he said. “No one encouraged me to have savings. I was paid under the table a lot. I alway told myself it was by choice, but it really wasn’t. I talked myself into believing it was my fault. It just wasn’t a situation I was prepared for. I wasn’t prepared.”

Sam stayed with friends when he could. A lot of them were sick, though. It was the height of the AIDs epidemic, and one by one, Sam’s friends were dying. Among his friends, they called it the plague.

He went through a cycle of moving in with friends and caring for them through their last days. When they died, he slept on the streets. At times he washed buses in the city’s Dogpatch district. He earned enough money to rent another room in a hotel, but not enough to buy food. Sometimes he washed dishes in cafes. Around this time, he met his partner, Kurt. They lifted each other’s spirits. Together, they felt less alone. They took care of each other. He got a job at the Macy’s in Union Square.

Kurt had Huntington’s disease, and his motor functions deteriorated over the years. In 2001, Kurt died.

“I went into a tailspin,” Sam said. “I was with Kurt for almost ten years. He was my heart.”

Sam doesn’t remember the following years well. After Kurt died, he suffered his first stroke while stacking shelves at Macy’s. He became blind in one eye. Once again, friends took him in until they moved or succumbed to illness. Sam doesn’t remember his next two strokes.

He avoided homelessness because local San Francisco charity St. Anthony’s stepped in to help. They secured him a room in an SRO. He now receives social security payments. Every Thursday, he meets with his caseworker, Sarah, at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin. He describes her as his guardian angel.

He’s on a waiting list to receive permanent affordable housing. Once he gets that, he wants to help people living in aged care facilities. He wants to care for people like he once cared for his friends, like his friends once cared for him.

“We’re throwing people away,” he said, referring to San Francisco’s homeless who are often ignored and uncared for. “Nobody should be thrown away. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be thrown away, or my mother. People think homeless people are violent. They’re not violent. They’re scared.”

Sam steadies himself with his cane and begins his slow walk to meet with Sarah.

“I look forward,” he said. “I can’t look back. The back is too dark and scary. I have hope. I look forward.”

First published June 5, 2015