One year after The Chronicle profiled the lives of more than a dozen street people who lived on Homeless Island, a concrete traffic divider in downtown San Francisco at 12th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, not much has changed in the lives of all but one of them. Despite rescue attempts by relatives who read the story and a police crackdown on panhandling that scattered the colony throughout surrounding neighborhoods, only Rita Grant has been nursed back to health. Here’s an update on some of the others, who have rarely returned since the island was refurbished in an effort to discourage panhandling there. Most of the Islanders and their relatives asked that their full names not be used..
“LITTLE BIT” SUSAN
A short, heroin-addicted prostitute, 33, also called “The Midget.”
After the story: Her family back East argued by phone with her to get off the street, but nothing changed until Nov. 23, when she checked into San Francisco General Hospital with a fever and internal infection. She got onto methadone to kick heroin, then city social workers put her up at a residential hotel. “I wasn’t ready for this before,” Susan said. “But I’ve had too many brushes with death on the street, and I’m getting older. I want to change.” The day after Christmas, however, she moved out of the hotel and left no forwarding address..
Leader of the Island, 44 when he died on Sept. 16, 2003, of a flesh- eating disease in his leg.
After the story: A Chronicle reporter tracked down his relatives and told them of Rettig’s death. They had him cremated and flew his ashes to his hometown of Burlington, Iowa. “About 15 of us gathered on a Saturday for about 15 minutes at the graveyard, and there was no official there so I said a few words,” said Rettig’s uncle, Ron Rettig. “My point was: This is a warning to everyone — this is how you can end up if you mess with drugs and make the decisions Tommy made.”.
A one-legged former greeting card artist, 39, who panhandled in a wheelchair for heroin money.
After the story: Her two adult daughters read the story in the newspaper and searched until they found their mother. “We haven’t seen her for years,” said one, with joy in her eyes as she wheeled her mom along a sidewalk last summer. But in a few weeks, they all settled back to their respective lives. Vina now sleeps under Highway 101 at South Van Ness Avenue. Vina’s childhood friend from Oregon, Gina Lindow, sent a letter and a phone calling card to a Chronicle reporter, who delivered them to Vina last fall. “She never called,” Lindow said..
Rettig’s best friend, 53, was on methadone to kick heroin.
After the story: He slipped back to drug abuse, and recycles cans and bottles for cash. Last month, muggers broke his jaw, and he sleeps in the weeds near Cesar Chavez Street. Bobby Ray talked to his mother in New Jersey last year for the first time in 20 years, but “I got mad and hung up,” he said..
A 49-year-old transvestite who fled an abusive home as a child.
After the story: She moved into a residential hotel with a boyfriend last summer and detoxed off drugs. But in the fall, “My brother died, and I went back to heroin,” she said. She sleeps and panhandles on sidewalks near the Island — but also is talking to city outreach workers about getting back on methadone. Michelle’s cousin, who works with homeless and violence-abuse programs in Colorado, talked to Michelle by phone last winter. “We feel helpless,” she said..
Dubbed “Wild Woman” for her screeching fits, she looked 40 but actually was 29.
After the story: An anonymous family member e-mailed pictures to The Chronicle of her two daughters, ages 11 and 6 and being raised by relatives —
bright-eyed cuties, wearing prim clothing. The 11-year-old is a straight-A student who reads Harry Potter books, the sender wrote. Angel’s mother and aunt found her after reading the story and begged her to get clean, but she “just rolled her eyes and refused.” Angel said they weren’t trying hard enough to help..
A one-legged man in his 40s who panhandled with a sign between his teeth.
After the story: He begs and sleeps near Homeless Island. Hoppy has a 6- inch abscess on his right arm, caused by dirty needles, that emits a putrid stench. It resembles the sore that killed Rettig, and Hoppy jabs heroin syringes into the raw flesh like his friend did. “I’m too busy (panhandling) to get it looked at,” he said. “Maybe it’ll kill me.”
Shame of the City is an ongoing series focusing on San Franciscos homeless population.
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