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Reaching Out to the Homeless Woman Sleeping on Your San Francisco Doorstep

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A homeless man holds a cup in San Francisco. Sofia declined to have her photo taken for this story. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"It is an iconic neighborhood in San Francisco," says my husband, David, describing our street on Russian Hill.

"You've got the Golden Gate Bridge just to your left, Fisherman's Wharf down the hill, the cable car just around the corner," he adds.

And together we face an iconic San Francisco dilemma: how to help a woman who often sleeps -- sitting up -- on our front doorstep, a blanket over her head.

Her name is Sofia. She won't tell us her last name. She says she's 73 years old. Over the past seven months, we've made at least a dozen phone calls to the city.

Each time, I tell outreach workers about Sofia's silver-gray hair, her long pink skirt, the white socks that peek out from under her blanket.


"She's usually there sometime between 2 and 2:30 a.m.," I say in a call I made from work last month. "She tends to leave around 6:30. And if she's not on my door, she's usually on one of the doorsteps around that block."

If the city has made contact with Sofia, privacy laws prevent employees from telling me. So, when I didn't see her for a couple of weeks, I thought, "Maybe -- finally -- she's gotten some help."

But a few days ago, around 1:30 a.m., we found her in the doorway.

"Sofia, I’ve been trying to call people to come out and help," I say, as she wearily pulls the blanket off her head. "Has anyone come out and helped you?"

"No," she answers.

"No one has come out to talk to you?"

Again, the answer is no.

From New Hampshire to San Francisco in the '60s

Sofia is smart, and enjoys reading at the library.  She seems suspicious of people, though, explaining that most who offer her help just want to take her money.

Still, after a few minutes, she agrees to tell us a bit of her story. And, like our neighborhood, it's also classic San Francisco.

Sofia says she grew up in New Hampshire and came here in the late 1960s. "I came for the music," she says, smiling. "I liked all of it. The Mamas and Papas, the Beach Boys."

Sofia says she lived at the center of hippie culture -- in the Haight-Ashbury --  and worked as a nurse at the neighborhood's famous free clinic.

"What kind of people did you help?" I ask.

"Mostly it was people on drugs," she says, laughing. "We had a living room where everybody would come in that was on drugs, and we'd have to feed 'em all because they were all so hungry, you know."

After an Eviction, Trouble at Shelters

Sofia tells us she never married, doesn't have kids and her friends are dead or have moved away. She says she was evicted from her apartment about six years ago and has been on the streets ever since. She has been to shelters, though.

"But it's really horrible," she says.

"Why?" David asks.

"Well, people don't sleep at night. You know, they're swearing at each other. You're in a room, like, with a hundred other people, maybe. And people steal things," she says.

Complaints like these keep many of the homeless on the streets. And they're why, earlier this year, the city opened a new shelter called the Navigation Center. Unlike traditional shelters, it's open 24/7 and staffed with counselors who try to steer homeless people into permanent housing.

Beds at San Francisco's new Navigation Center homeless shelter.
Beds at San Francisco's new Navigation Center homeless shelter. (NavigationCenter.org)

A number of homeless advocates I've spoken with tell me Sofia would be a good candidate. But she says she's never heard of it and doesn't trust the city anyway.

"I told you, I don't get involved in these things," Sofia says.

"I think some people have good intentions," David says.

"Very few," she sighs.

A few days later, I went to City Hall to speak with San Francisco's interim homeless czar, Sam Dodge. The mayor appointed him to replace Bevan Dufty, who announced his retirement earlier this month. I told Dodge that I'm not convinced the outreach team is looking for Sofia or keeping track of her case.

Dodge said his office may have a file on her and may have spoken with her. But, again, because of privacy laws, he can't say. And if she doesn't want help, the city can't make her get it.

"We're not a kind of system where you can simply abduct people against their will,"  he says.

I also spoke about Sofia with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chuck Nevius. He's spent the last decade taking the city to task on homelessness. My frustration did not surprise him.

"Many of us in San Francisco have had the same experience you had.  Which is, you go to this homeless person, and you talk to them, and you say,  'Wait a minute -- he or she is making perfect sense. They're actually very bright. This is not someone who should be out on the street.' And these are people we can have an immediate impact with."

Nevius says the city's outreach team needs to be more persistent with people like Sofia.

"You can't walk up to them and say, 'Would you like to go to a shelter?' and they say, 'No." And you say, 'OK, fine.' "

Sofia says she's fine sleeping outside. But David and I don't believe it. We've heard her whimper in fear and seen her run across the street to hide, leaving her bags strewn on our steps.

We'll keep calling the city but we're now looking at other options -- church leaders, mental health counselors -- anyone willing to talk to Sofia in the middle of the night and help her get off the streets.

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