San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Advice on city’s woes from man who knows
Political aide helps others after decade being high, homeless
Most people who’ve interacted with the charismatic, upbeat Gary McCoy as he’s climbed San Francisco’s political ladder — working for thenSupervisors Scott Wiener and London Breed, as well as House
Pelosi — never would have guessed he nearly died on the city’s streets as his drug addiction ravaged his body.
For 10 years, he slept wherever he could find a private patch of pavement or dirt — behind a pump house in a Chinatown park, in the bushes in Buena Vista Park, under an overhang at Beck’s Motor Lodge in the Castro.
He couldn’t shake his addiction to methamphetamine, and he and his friends would score free drugs by
helping dealers inject safely or by trading sex for them. He ignored his HIV diagnosis, skipping his prescribed medication because it ruined his high.
Abscesses covered his skin, and Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions — the purple spots common among AIDS patients — covered his arms, torso and even the inside of his esophagus. He shrank to 110 pounds. He had just four Tcells.
“I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t have the strength to jump in front of a car or off a bridge,” he said. “I hoped that the next time I used would be the time I killed myself.”
Thankfully for McCoy, his husband, the bosses who rave about him and San Francisco itself, he dodged a deadly overdose — the fate that’s killing two people in the city every day, but which hasn’t grabbed the attention of the city’s leaders like it should. McCoy reached out a few weeks ago asking whether he could share his story with readers. He’d talked about his homelessness and drug addiction, but he’d never publicly shared that he’d been in and out of jail throughout those awful years.
But now, he said, he wants to divulge the whole story. Partly because he doesn’t want to keep secrets anymore. Partly because he has a new, notsopolitical job as the director of public affairs for HealthRight 360, which runs residential substance abuse treatment programs in the city. And partly because he has ideas for how San Francisco can begin to pull itself out of its depths of despair.
“People are frustrated,” said McCoy, 42. “As a city, we haven’t tried everything yet — we really haven’t. A lot of things have been put on hold.”
McCoy grew up in a conservative family in a conservative place, Norfolk, Va. He was closeted as a teenager and hung out with an older crowd to try to fit in. He dabbled in heroin, and it quickly became an addiction.
“I didn’t care,” he recalled. “It helped numb a lot of pain that I was going through.”
He’d shoplift items, return them and use the cash to buy drugs. On one such escapade at Walmart, a friend tried to steal a computer, and police arrested both of them. McCoy was charged with grand larceny.
He got three years’ probation, but kept failing to show up for the required checks and drug screens. That eventually led to a year in jail. When he got out in late 2001, he headed to San Francisco in hopes of starting fresh, but life got even worse. Within months, he developed a meth addiction and an HIV infection. He said drugs are
“People are frustrated. As a city, we haven’t tried everything yet — we really haven’t. A lot of things have been put on hold.”
easy to find anywhere if you’re desperate, but they’re especially easy to score in San Francisco.
And he quickly got picked up by police — again — for drug possession. He was diverted to drug court, but again struggled with the required checkins. He said drug court could have helped him if it had promoted harm reduction, but the deal was abstinence in exchange for wiping his record clear, and he couldn’t manage it.
Years of homelessness, addiction and misery followed. In 2005, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Finally, when his Tcell count plummeted to four, he told a caseworker at San Francisco General Hospital’s famed Ward 86 for AIDS patients that he was ready to enter a treatment program so he could start taking his HIV medications again.
“That was my only goal,” he said. “Just to get into a routine where I was taking my HIV medications.”
She got him into a 90day treatment program. He left after a month to use again, but the overnight counselor called him and told him to return. He did, saying the counselor’s deep concern and his own physical pain after coming down from his first high in a month made him go back. He finished the program, and he’s been sober since Feb. 23, 2011.
A mutual acquaintance of his and Wiener’s got him a volunteer position in the thensupervisor’s office answering phones. He then worked as a legislative aide for Wiener, Breed and former Supervisor Julie Christensen. He worked in policy and public affairs for the Recreation and Park Department. And he worked as a senior congressional aide to Pelosi in her San Francisco office.
Each time, he underwent a background check and confessed his secrets to his future bosses. Each time, they welcomed him.
“It was a big deal for me, a big deal, to be able to tell someone the truth about something I was ashamed of,” he said. “It’s still traumatic to have to go through that every single time.”
The arrests only delayed his recovery, he said, and he argues police are not the answer to people experiencing mental health and drug crises. Instead, he supports the city’s street crisis teams. Each team is comprised of a paramedic, a clinician and a peer who’s been homeless or struggled with mental health or drug problems.
Three teams are working now, covering the Tenderloin, the Mission and the Castro. On Monday, one of those three will be dedicated to the Bayview. These teams need to be expanded as quickly as possible, but the city has no start date for its planned three additional teams.
Likewise, a longplanned meth sobering center for people to ride out their dangerous highs in a calm environment and get connected to treatment will not open until fall at the earliest — and will serve only 20 people. A safe injection site has been discussed for years with no real progress. A planned overhaul of the city’s behavioral health system is years away.
McCoy supports all of this — on a much hastened timeline — plus more outreach workers fanning out around the city offering help and treatment. He doesn’t remember a single outreach worker approaching him when he lived outside, but there was always somebody shouting in the Tenderloin that they had drugs for sale.
The Homeless Outreach Team started in 2004 when McCoy was in the thick of his crisis, but he never saw any members. They’re still understaffed and underpaid. McCoy said that to truly make a difference, each neighborhood in the city should have its own outreach team — meaning a homeless person would see a caring person with access to help every day.
“Planting that seed, making sure they know the treatment opportunities exist, I think the significance of that gets overlooked a lot,” he said.
Wiener, McCoy’s first boss in San Francisco and the officiant at his wedding, said he believes everybody deserves a second chance and that McCoy wound up being a big asset to this office — and to the city itself. And he fully agrees with McCoy about San Francisco’s slow pace in addressing a fastmoving crisis.
“We do a little bit here, a little bit there,” Wiener said. “We know these strategies work, but only if you’re all in.”
Life is good for McCoy now. His career is thriving. He’s the cochair of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. He has 700 T cells. He’s gained weight — 45 pounds before the pandemic, 55 now, he said with a laugh. He got married. He rents an apartment in Twin Peaks — a twobedroom because he and his husband are thinking about adopting a baby.
He walks to the Castro every morning for coffee and sees familiar faces from his days on the streets. He smiles. He says hello. He tells people he can help them.
He said he’s tried to help scores of people since recovering. He estimates that, stunningly, 25 ended up dying. But he guessed he’s eased 10 people into treatment.
“It’s one more person,” he said, “telling someone there is a better way.”