After His Death on the Street, a San Francisco Tent Resident's Story Comes Into Focus

4 min

Perry Foster lived in early 2016 on Division Street between Harrison and Bryant streets. He was from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was still a legend among high school classmates as the football star who led his team to an undefeated season and a state championship. Foster died of a heroin overdose on April 11, 2018. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

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couple months back, I got a heads-up: A man I'd interviewed in early 2016 about his experiences living in a tent on San Francisco's Division Street had died, possibly of a drug overdose.

The man was Perry Foster, a Michigan native who'd lived on the streets or in other extreme circumstances in the city since 2008. His forthrightness and willingness to share his thoughts with a complete stranger made an impression. A few days after we talked, I edited the audio, wrote a short piece describing our meeting, and posted it. Perry and I didn't cross paths again.

The alert I got in April didn't come with a lot of details. But the city's medical examiner confirmed that a Perry Foster -- also known as Parree Foster -- was among the recently deceased the office had processed.

My first impulse was to write something quick: Here's a man we told you about some time back, a man who spoke with some eloquence about homelessness in San Francisco, a man who has now lost his life on the street. He was 48 years old.

But there was more to Perry's story than that.

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In a previous life, he had been regarded as a football prodigy in his native Michigan. After his death, I heard from several people who, though they hadn't seen Perry in decades, still spoke in awestruck terms about his talents.

In 1987, as a senior running back and defensive back at Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, he led his team to a state championship. He played for two years at Eastern Michigan University. He starred there, too, stirring talk of a possible professional career.

Then Foster failed academically. He vanished from football and his old teammates’ lives after that second year in college.

Perry Foster's entry in the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame directory.

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ootball skill was just part of what made Perry stand out, though. Those who knew him as a young man also remember him as a leader, charismatic and generous.

"He gave an aura of special talent that people were drawn to," said Jim Galvin, who coached Foster at Catholic Central. "... For all the accolades he received, and all the honors -- two-time All-State, All Area, et cetera -- he was the type of guy who would come back after a run and compliment an offensive lineman."

Jim Passinault quarterbacked the 1987 Catholic Central team and said Perry "had very, very special gifts both physically and to connect with other people."

But neither Galvin nor Passinault -- or anyone else on the 1987 team -- knew before Perry's death what had become of him.

Passinault, now a physician in Grand Rapids, wrote a eulogy for Perry's memorial in late April:

Perry Foster was everything that we were, embodied in Scuba gloves, form-fitting No. 22 jersey, tightly kept fade, one lone towel giving defenders a hope of grabbing something, anything, that made them feel like they could tackle him.

He was fast, he was proud, he was confident, he was tough, he was Perry. He never apologized for any of it. He was what we were, but he was just better at it than the rest of us were. He knew it and we knew it.

Nobody has ever uttered the words: “Perry was OK.” The phrases were: “Perry is amazing." “Perry is the best I have ever seen." “We have to stop Perry." “Perry is killing us." ...

... These words would be worthless tripe if not matched with the recognition of the glaring pain and struggle that Perry Foster lived in his life. I cannot for a moment, understand the pain and fear that came with his life on Earth, especially in his last years. I do not know how to reconcile the Perry in my memory, with the Perry in the interview as a homeless man in San Francisco. That is our struggle today. May each of us never forget what true excellence feels like, remember who singularly embodied that excellence, and lead compassionate and purpose-driven lives that embrace what we knew and what we know about our brother, Perry Foster."

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hat happened? Here's what I can piece together.

Perry was born in 1970. His mother died when he was 3 or 4 years old. His father, Robert Foster, raised him, an older sister and an older brother on his own. He coached Perry and his brother, Bobby, for years in a youth football league. He said he watched Perry grow from a smart, determined but slow player into the defensive and offensive star he became in high school.

"He'd have tackles, he'd have fumble recoveries, he'd have kickoff and punt returns -- he'd do it all," Robert Foster said in an interview. "... He just got better, faster, stronger. And his will to win was always there, but it just took over."

But Foster said he felt something was amiss with Perry as he finished high school.

"I think he was doing drugs or something by that time -- he was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing because he wasn’t acting right anymore," Foster said.

One result was that his son lost a scholarship to play football at the University of Michigan. The offer was withdrawn, Robert Foster said, because Perry had gotten into a serious fight at school.

Michigan said it might reconsider, Foster said, if his son attended the university for a semester on a non-scholarship basis to show he could handle what was required of him.

"I said, 'Well, I got to get Perry off the streets. He can't last a semester,' " Foster said. So instead, Perry went to Eastern Michigan, where his older brother, Bobby, was a starting running back.

But within two years -- 1990 -- both sons were out of school.

Bobby Foster said in answer to questions on Facebook that while he can't account for what happened to his brother, "Peer pressure led me into a way of life that was fueled by women, drugs, alcohol and partying. I lost myself, didn't know who I was anymore and I ran out of gas."

Robert Foster said he had found it increasingly difficult to reach Perry by this time, recounting an exchange with his son:

"I said, 'Perry, God gave you a talent. You got to use that in the right way to get to where you want to go.'

'I made these legs! I did this!’

'Whoa! Whoa! Let me step back from you because lightning going to strike in a minute.' "

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ne other development widened the breach between Robert Foster and his son: Perry came out as gay.

Robert Foster, a former tool-and-die maker who went back to school to earn degrees in biblical studies and counseling, said, "I could accept Perry as Perry but not as Perry gay."

He adds that he and his son "butted heads" over the issue and that it became something that kept them apart.

Perry Foster's timeline becomes a little hazy at this point. He spent time in Atlanta, where his older sister went to college. He spent time in Chicago and Southern California.

Jim Passinault, the Grand Rapids Catholic Central quarterback, said he ran into Perry once, maybe 10 years ago, waiting tables in Saugatuck, a town on Lake Michigan.

"I gave him a big, long hug and asked him, 'How's it going? What are you up to?' " Passinault said. "He just always had a story about why he was where he was and what was waiting for him next."

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ome time in 2008, Perry arrived in San Francisco.

Records show that over the next decade, he was arrested several times (typically on charges related to theft or drugs), jailed, shot, stabbed, placed into transitional housing in Tenderloin hotels at least twice, evicted, beaten and hospitalized repeatedly. Eventually he started living in a tent on the city's streets.

But to listen to those who encountered him during this journey, the charisma his high school teammates remember was intact.

Maraea Master, who runs a program for homeless at-risk students at City College, got to know Perry during the two years she worked on San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team.

"Perry had this manner about himself where it was like, 'Yes, I live in this tent,' but he really kept some sort of elegance to himself. He didn’t allow things to get dictated to him and how he should be looking and how he should be treated."

Master said that like many, many others living on the streets, Perry suffered from a wide range of physical ailments, mental illness and substance abuse. Sometimes it was not easy to help him.

"I would take a long time to put his meds in medi-sets (pill organizers) to make sure he would take them," Master said. "And then like a week later I would be in someone else’s tent and I’ll see his medicine and I’ll be like, ‘God damn it, this is Perry’s medication! Why is it in here?’ And I’m just like, ‘Agghhh!’ "

Master said Perry challenged police officers and Public Works employees sent to get him to move about their authority to do so -- what some homeless outreach workers would term "a hard case."

But he was vulnerable to the dangers of the streets, too.

Perry Foster in pictures posted to Facebook after being dragged from his tent and beaten in September 2017.

Last September, he was dragged from his tent and beaten and landed back in the hospital with facial fractures. He posted pictures to Facebook. One of those who responded was his brother, Bobby.

"Come home man and stop risking your life out there," he wrote. "How many times have you been attacked? What's it going to take before you realize you are so much better than that? You think you're scared? It's time for you to honestly assess your situation and make a sound judgment. Do you want to live or die? You are a cat that is running out of lives."

Perry dismissed his brother's concern as "talkshow bullshit. ... Shitte (sic) and life happens."

One of Perry's friends, a man named Memphis whom I met outside his tent on South Van Ness Avenue, said Perry was afraid of conditions on the street and had been thinking about returning to Michigan.

"He was actually making plans to go home," Memphis said. "And I told him he should go home months ago. But he said he needed to do something here first, let go of some things first, and then go home."

What was that thing he needed to do?

Perry had talked about wanting to help people on the street, to give them a voice. His father, Robert Foster, said he told his son he needed to attend to his own needs first.

"I told him, ‘Perry, the best way you can help anybody is to show them how to get out, show ‘em how to do better, by you getting out and doing better and then going back and helping people,'" Foster said. "'You can’t help 'em where you at, because you in the same condition they in.'"

He also said Perry talked about coming home.

"But he wanted a round-trip ticket," Foster said. "What you going to do with a round-trip ticket? You want to go back to hell? If you get out of hell, you want to go back?"

On April 11, about a week after he’d been kicked out of an apartment where he'd been crashing with a friend, Perry died. The San Francisco medical examiner’s office has not issued a final cause of death, but Robert Foster said hospital officials told him Perry had died of a heroin overdose. City emergency response reports suggest that he died near Bryant and Division streets, just feet from where I met him two years earlier.

When she heard the news, Maraea Master, the former Homeless Outreach Team member, agonized over the circumstances.

"Was Perry alone?" she asked herself. "Where was his help? Did he have anyone that was there visiting him regularly? Did anybody keep any of the things he wrote? Does he have any family anywhere? All of these things came up for me.

"Don't get me wrong -- there's a couple of Perrys to me out there. But I feel like his story is really important. ... The world is really kind of missing something without him here -- that guy who lived in that tent."

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