San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
COULD SHE RESCUE HER DAUGHTER?
She lost her son to a fentanyl overdose — so she moved to S.F., trying to save Jessica
She quit her job, gave up her apartment and packed her almost entirely purple wardrobe in boxes. To save her daughter’s life, Laurie Steves gave up her own.
She left a suburb of Seattle early on the morning of May 13, heading south in her beat-up red Chevy Impala, its odometer pushing 140,000 miles. She had one aim: reaching San Francisco to save Jessica DiDia, the 34-year-old daughter she hadn’t seen in nine years.
The spunky little girl with the huge smile and love of the limelight was long gone. Laurie didn’t know much about Jessica’s life now, but she knew she was homeless in the Tenderloin and addicted to fentanyl, and had escaped death from overdosing many times with a lucky shot of Narcan.
Laurie, 56, couldn’t lose another child. Jessica’s little brother, Zachary, had died alone in December after overdosing on fentanyl and Ketamine. He was just 25. Laurie began her drive with Zachary’s ashes by her side.
“I talk to him sometimes,” she said. “I just tell him how much I miss him and how much I know he wanted me to save Jess. And I’m doing it.”
Laurie dreamed of leaving San Francisco with Jessica in the passenger seat, ready to enter long-term residential drug treatment and start a healthy new life. But she didn’t know what she was up against: the perilous collision of a city wholly unprepared to address its fentanyl crisis and the heartbreaking pull of addiction.
Laurie had emailed me two weeks before her move.
“My name,” she wrote, “is Laurie Steves and I am trying to get my addict daughter off the streets of the Tenderloin. ... Her younger brother died of a drug overdose four months ago. I cannot lose another child. Is there some way you can help?”
I had one way to help: tell her story.
When Laurie left Washington, she didn’t know how daunting it would be to lure Jessica away, but she understood what was at stake. She knew that 712 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2020, and that 2021 was racking up similar numbers. That’s nearly two corpses, on average, taken to the medical examiner’s office every day.
“It makes me wonder,” Laurie said as we talked shortly after her arrival, “When is my daughter going to be one of those two?”
Laurie arrived in San Francisco with only about $1,000, mostly donations from family. She rented a room in a Bayview home for $1,100 a month — exactly double what she paid for rent in Port Orchard, Wash. She had no trouble paying her bills back home on her $17.69 hourly wage as a cook in a nursing home, and she hoped her finances would pencil out here, too.
She decorated her new room in purple. She placed Zachary’s ashes and a large photo of him on her nightstand. She thumbed through photo albums she’d brought with her — of Jessica and Zachary and her middle child, Lauren, 32, now living with her husband and kids in Florida.
Laurie tried to stay positive, but she sometimes lingered on her regrets as a mom and the painful memories of her own childhood.
Laurie was one of seven kids born to parents who battled intense alcohol addiction, and was in and out of foster care starting at just 6 months old. Another couple — already raising four kids of their own — adopted the entire brood when Laurie was 5. Laurie described her adoptive parents as hardworking and loving.
She said she was sexually abused as a child, and by age 15 was skipping school, drinking, using marijuana and speed, and cutting herself. She showed me scars on her arms. She said she was diagnosed with depression.
Laurie dropped out of high school, but got her GED and was managing a convenience store when she met Ray DiDia, a customer, when she was 20. He was 11 years older. They got pregnant with Jessica within months.
“My mother threw a fit. She said, ‘You don’t need a child right now,’ ” Laurie recalled. “I didn’t think twice. I wanted to be a wife and a mother. I wanted two little girls, and I got them.”
The contentious marriage was over within a few years, and decades later, the bitterness between Laurie and Ray, now retired and living in Florida, remains. In an interview, Ray called Laurie self-involved and said she wasn’t a loving, hands-on mother. Laurie said Ray was abusive, which he strongly denies.
At first, the girls mostly lived with Laurie. Jessica was an attention-seeking spitfire, competing in beauty pageants such as the Little Miss Hemisphere contest and joining a competitive cheerleading squad. But Laurie noticed a change when Jessica was 9. Her daughter grew depressed and defiant. She and Jessica, both headstrong, fought constantly.
When she was nearly 10, Jessica wanted to live with her dad, and Laurie agreed, thinking it would give them a short break. She thought Jessica would realize life wasn’t better at her dad’s, but in some ways, it was. The businessman had more money. He had stepkids for her to play with. They took vacations. Jessica never moved back.
“In hindsight, I never would have done that,” Laurie said.
A few years later, Ray won custody of their second daughter, Lauren, too, and Laurie was heartbroken. She saw them on some weekends and holidays.
Life repeated itself with Zachary, the son Laurie had with her second husband. After divorcing Zachary’s father, Laurie had a brief third marriage and moved to Washington with that husband. She left Zachary at age 16 in Pennsylvania with his dad.
“I was just flat-out absent,” she said. “I regret I didn’t have more of a hand in what was going on in their lives.”
Lauren Slobod, Jessica’s sister and Zachary’s half sister, is still close with both her parents and said she respects her mom for trying to make amends with her children and for upturning her life to try to help Jessica.
“I’m really proud of her,” she said. “My mom had literally nothing and went to San Francisco with zero dollars and just a prayer and a little bit of hope that she could find Jess.”
Laurie and Ray don’t agree on much, but they both said Jessica started using drugs in her teens. Jessica, who Laurie said was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, eventually left home at age 17 for Las Vegas and then Southern California. She visited San Francisco in 2012 at 25 for a Phish concert and has remained here since.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco, Jessica appeared in an episode — titled “San Francisco Meth Zombies” — of the 2013 National Geographic show “Drugs Inc.”
Wearing her red hair in a poofy ponytail, she told the camera, “Somebody told me when I first moved here a couple months ago, ‘People don’t come here to live. They come here to die.’ I’m hoping I don’t make that statistic true.”
Jessica tried drug treatment, but it never stuck. She landed in jail — in 2019, news reports show, police arrested her on suspicion of receiving stolen property and violating her probation after she was found sitting with bags of items taken from the car of students on a field trip to the Hall of Justice.
She was repeatedly hospitalized, including about four years ago for surgery after a staph infection from a dirty needle reached her brain. She has suffered seizures ever since. Ray visited her in the hospital, the last time he saw his daughter. She’d connect with her family every now and then — usually when she was temporarily clean. But when she was using, she disappeared for long stretches. Laurie had heard from her on the phone only once in the past four or five years.
Those years of silence and longing are common, said Liz Breuilly, who helps play detective for Miracle Messages, a nonprofit that aims to connect homeless people and the relatives who miss them. More than 700 families from around the country have requested her services so far, and many of their lost children were last spotted in San Francisco.
Is there a common thread
among those kids, missing somewhere on the city’s streets?
“Yeah,” she responded immediately. “Fentanyl.”
Before moving to San Francisco, Laurie had flown to the city for a couple of days in April, posting “missing” signs with her daughter’s face all over the Tenderloin. She searched and searched, but no Jessica.
A paramedic skirted privacy laws and looked up Jessica’s name in his computer. She’s a “frequent flier” at local hospitals, he told Laurie. Between her daughter’s seizure disorder and repeated overdoses, Laurie wasn’t surprised. But she was disturbed at what she saw in the Tenderloin.
“I’m stepping over people on the sidewalk who have needles in their legs, and people are puking on the street,” she said. “It was a horrible experience, and to know my daughter is living that life, and all they’re doing is handing out tents for them to get high in instead of getting the dealers off the streets — I was shocked.”
After striking out in San Francisco, Laurie returned to Washington and soon got a critical call. Adam Mesnick, the owner of the Deli Board in the South of Market district, saw one of the flyers she’d left behind and called Laurie. He knew Jessica from the neighborhood and worried that the posters meant she was dead.
He and Laurie continued to exchange calls and messages, bonding over their shared assessment of San Francisco’s failed response to its drug crisis — that its live-and-letlive attitude amounts to negligence and makes life far harder for people like Jessica.
Adam runs a controversial, in-your-face Twitter account called @bettersoma that shows the city’s drug crisis close up, angering some advocates who say he’s insensitive and exploits homeless people. He argues that the tweets depict a reality that City Hall politicians and homeless advocates are unwilling to face. A recovering alcoholic himself, he said he wants more police presence, incarceration for dealers and far more treatment for people addicted to drugs. He doesn’t think the city’s focus on harm reduction is working.
“I try to depict the truth of what’s really happening,” he said.
One of those truths? That the city’s homeless and drug crises are deeply intertwined. The city’s last homeless count found 8,011 homeless people in San Francisco — 42% of them, like Jessica, struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction.
While his online persona can be edgy, Adam is engaged in the lives of homeless individuals and posts videos of them sharing their stories. He gives them free sandwiches, money, odd jobs and a listening ear.
Adam told Laurie he’d try to help, but he wasn’t optimistic. He didn’t think Jessica was ready to change her life. He didn’t even think she was ready to see her mom.
Laurie tried for a couple of weeks after her move to find her daughter by working the phones and following up on tips from her still-posted “missing” flyers. Meanwhile, Adam kept an eye out for Jessica. But Laurie’s bank account was draining, with no money coming in. Increasingly desperate, she decided to search the Tenderloin herself.
She didn’t know the neighborhood, and walked in circles, dealers calling out to her, offering drugs. She looked at everyone hunched over or passed out, trying to identify her daughter. She wondered: Where were the family members of those lost souls?
“But then I would stop and think to myself, ‘Well, where the hell have you been the last nine years?’ ” she said.
Two days later, Laurie headed back to the Tenderloin for a protest organized by another mother with a homeless child addicted to drugs.
She’d exchanged Twitter messages with Jacqui Berlinn, who lives in Livermore and is furious that San Francisco mostly looks the other way at dealers selling poison at Turk and Hyde streets to people like her son, Corey.
Jacqui spoke at a protest across the street from the open-air drug market, the dealers scattering when protesters and camera crews showed up.
“He calls this Pleasure Island, like in Pinocchio — you can just enjoy all the candy,” Jacqui said of her son. “People say you have to hit rock bottom. But my son’s rock bottom is death. I know that.”
Laurie said it made her feel less alone to know other parents faced the same struggle. She carried the big poster board with Zachary’s face on it.
Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and lives a block from the open-air drug market, gave an emotional speech and said all the things Jacqui and Laurie wanted to hear. That the neighborhood hates the drug trade. That it’s destroying families. That there must be intervention for people addicted to drugs. That there must be “effective, meaningful prosecution” for dealers from the district attorney.
“This is killing more people in our city than anything else by far,” he said.
He was right. In 2020, 712 people died of drug overdoses, compared with 257 who lost their lives to COVID-19, 48 who were victims of homicide and 30 who lost their lives in traffic collisions. When the pandemic struck, just about the entire city government flew into action, but the drug crisis had seen comparatively little response. An outreach team here, some more treatment beds there. But no all-hands-on-deck wartime effort.
“Every single elected official should be here,” the supervisor continued, his voice rising in anger and his face turning red. “Push us to do more. We all have to do more. Hold me accountable.” Laurie would comment months later that the supervisor’s stirring words at the protest hadn’t prompted any change as far as she could tell.
“Our children are sick,” Jacqui Berlinn said at the protest. “And they need help.”
Laurie didn’t know it as she held the sign at that protest, but Jessica had seen her — and she’d bolted. Jessica went to visit Adam at the Deli Board, and he phoned to let me know she was there. He didn’t tell Laurie because Jessica wasn’t ready to see her, but she agreed to talk to me and a Chronicle photographer and have her life documented.
Jessica sat on the curb, smoking a cigarette and downing soda. She had one of the posters with her face on it that her mom had posted, but it was ripped in half.
“What is the extreme of her moving here to this f—ing city with nothing? What the hell?” she said of her mom. “She’s loopy. She’s like mental.”
While Jessica seemed annoyed with her mom, she also sometimes flashed a huge smile and peppered our conversation with witty remarks and jokes. A lover of wigs, jewelry and big sunglasses, Jessica could have been a stage actress in another life. Her hands and ankles were swollen. She showed me a brochure from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation called “How to prevent and respond to overdose.” It had information about how to use Narcan, but nothing about how to get help if you want to stop using drugs.
Jessica said the drugs help mask her intense anxiety and that treatment programs were too structured to work for her.
She recalled the first time she used fentanyl — sometime in 2019 when she thought she was buying pure crack cocaine.
“I felt it going up my spine. I felt like it exploded and then I died,” she said. “The feeling of the near-death experience is undescribable. Complete nothingness.”
She said police officers spotted her passed out near the Civic Center BART Station and injected her with Narcan eight times. She survived, but kept using fentanyl, an incredibly powerful synthetic opioid that’s cheaper, easier to obtain and far more powerful than heroin. Pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s pushed opioids as painkillers that they claimed weren’t addictive, and many people who used pills then switched to heroin and later fentanyl, fueling a national crisis of addiction and death.
“I’ve OD’d at least 50 times,” Jessica said.
Jessica said she doesn’t even get high from fentanyl anymore, but it helps with an intense pain in her left leg that she has refused to let doctors examine because she hates hospitals. She keeps the wound, which smells rancid and oozes pus, wrapped in dirty bandages.
Jessica had mostly lived on the streets for years, but was staying at the Monarch, a shelter-in-place hotel on Geary Street, during the pandemic. Free room. Free food. Free drug paraphernalia. She just needed money to buy drugs, she said, and she openly acknowledged she gets that money by swiping goods from Target and reselling them.
The Monarch is one of 25 hotels used by the city during the pandemic to house homeless people. Still, the city seems to have mostly missed the opportunity to coax people living in the hotels and addicted to drugs into treatment. Of the roughly 4,000 people who lived in the hotels at any point in the pandemic, just 10 — one quarter of 1% — moved into residential drug treatment programs, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
Department of Public Health outreach teams made contact with 1,500 people living in the hotels during the pandemic, and nearly half of them were connected to mental health care, drug treatment or medical care, but there’s no data on the outcomes, said Angelica Almeida, director of street-based and justice-involved behavioral health services for the city’s Department of Public Health.
Jessica said her life might seem hard, but it’s actually pretty carefree, and she offered a sweeping explanation of one reason why her mom would face such long odds trying to pull her out of San Francisco.
“The city is way too easy for people with nothing to get by,” she said. “That’s why I’m still here nine years later. You get by with doing drugs and suffer no consequences. I like it here.”
Laurie and Adam stood the next afternoon at the entrance to Victoria Manalo Draves Park on Folsom Street. Jessica had promised Adam she’d meet her mom there promptly at 4 p.m., writing the time in Sharpie on her arm. As others walked their dogs and sunbathed in the park, Laurie was clearly anxious. She paced, bit her nails and cried, wiping away tears and explaining she’d waited nine years for this moment.
“I thought about how little I need to say,” she said. “I need to just let her talk.”
She waited, talking with Adam. Jessica never showed up.
“If you see her,” she told Adam, “tell her Mommy loves her.”
She walked to her car and sat inside crying.
More than a week later, Laurie still hadn’t heard from her daughter. She drove to the Tenderloin, parked and waited. Finally, she saw her.
“I look to the left and there she was, walking past,” Laurie said. “I was like, ‘Jess!’ She whipped her head around so I knew it was her right away.”
Laurie ran across the street, and Jessica asked what she wanted.
“I said, ‘Is that all I get after nine years?’ ” Laurie said. “I gave her a big hug.”
They went to Denny’s, and with a tip, Laurie shelled out more than $50. They spent a few hours together, and Jessica used drugs three times.
There seemed to be the beginning of rapport between them, and when Laurie promised to bring brownies to Jessica the next day, her daughter agreed. But when Laurie returned with the treats, Jessica was nowhere to be found.
That’s how much of the summer went, Laurie embarking on long searches in the Tenderloin for Jessica, but only occasionally finding her. Jessica had a cell phone at one point, but didn’t use it. Laurie called the Monarch so often that the front-desk person yelled at her to stop.
They spent time together in mid-June, sitting for hours on a stranger’s front steps, arguing in circles. Laurie wanted Jessica to get her leg treated or go to a methadone clinic. Jessica said she needed an ID to do either, but Laurie couldn’t figure out how to make an appointment at the DMV on her phone.
Laurie told Jessica that day she had some good news — she’d gotten a full-time job cooking at Mezli, a Silicon Valley start-up. She’d help cook Mediterranean food that would eventually be prepared and served entirely by robots to save on costs. She hoped money wouldn’t be so tight anymore.
Laurie had barely been surviving financially. She’d gotten a few parking tickets. The food was outrageously expensive. So was the gas. And the rent. She’d found jobs cleaning houses on Craigslist, but her bank account had shrunk to $200. She got free groceries weekly at a Bayview food pantry.
Jessica couldn’t believe her mom wasn’t leaning on the city for help.
“You should get a free hotel room,” Jessica told her. “You moved here with nothing. You’re all proper and s—.”
“I don’t qualify for the same services you do,” Laurie told her.
“Yes you do! Shut up! You think people in hotel rooms don’t have income?” Jessica snapped back.
“We need to take a step in the right direction,” Laurie told her daughter, urging her to pick among the hospital, the clinic or the DMV.
But they didn’t get anywhere. They kept arguing on the stranger’s front steps.
By the end of July, Laurie realized her quest was pointless. Jessica didn’t want to stop using drugs and didn’t want her mom there. Laurie
had suspected as much for weeks, but when she called Jessica to chat on July 31, it finally hit her.
“I said I was getting something to eat, and she said, ‘Well, don’t come here. I don’t want to see you,’ ” Laurie recalled.
They fought about her leg again, and Jessica said, “I don’t want your help.”
Laurie knew it was time to leave.
“I can’t do anything else here,” she said. “I can’t afford to live here, either. It’s killing me. I think I have $4 in my bank until payday.”
Laurie told her boss and her landlord that Aug. 31 would be her last day in the city.
She couldn’t leave San Francisco without saying goodbye to her daughter. But in her 3½ months in San Francisco, Laurie had seen Jessica fewer than 10 times — her daughter never kept a single date with her.
On Aug. 30, Laurie set out after 9 p.m. to find Jessica and say goodbye. She drove in circles through the Tenderloin, past people stumbling in the middle of traffic. Past people slumped against the sides of buildings. Past a mural that read, “There are 3,500 children in the Tenderloin.”
She slowly drove up and down Willow Street, lowering her window to listen for Jessica’s voice. Tents, bicycle parts and hanging blankets lined the grim stretch like a shantytown. Somebody sat in a wheelchair covered almost entirely with a white blanket like a kid dressed as a ghost at Halloween — except swollen, bloody bare feet emerged from the bottom.
She gave up shortly before midnight.
Departure day. Laurie packed up her car and put the big photo of Zachary in the back window. She left the Bayview in midafternoon and swung by the Deli Board to say goodbye to Adam.
Laurie said she wished Jessica would just show up so she didn’t have to search the Tenderloin again.
And just then, Jessica appeared. She pushed a cart laden with plastic shopping bags and purses with security tags still on them, and a black barstool strapped to it.
“She’s here! She’s here!” Laurie squealed.
Jessica said she figured her mom would be gone by then, and she wanted Adam to record a “surprise hello-goodbye message” for Laurie to see on Twitter.
Jessica was in an unusually cheerful mood. She and her mom talked about nothing and everything. Like about how Laurie used to always wear turquoise instead of purple. “You look like Barney now,” Jessica teased.
“Do you know you have a security tag on the back of your pants?” Laurie teased back.
Jessica said she swiped them from Target. They went for $20, but she could resell them for $8, she said. She showed her mom a piece of cardboard, also stolen, with cheap silver rings affixed to it and asked Laurie to choose one. They clinked rings — snakes for Jessica, stars for Laurie.
I asked Jessica when Laurie was out of earshot if she would miss her mom.
“Have I ever? Not really,” she said with another shrug. “Even as a kid I don’t think I ever really registered what it would be like to miss her.”
But when Laurie said she had to get on the road, Jessica asked her to spend one more night. Laurie declined, but offered to take her to the hospital to finally get that leg looked at. Jessica refused.
I asked Jessica if she thought she’d ever leave San Francisco.
“It’s like a vortex,” she said. “I want to get out of here. But why the f— would I leave here if I have everything I need given to me?
“It might be enabling or it might be keeping you in a cycle, but at least you can survive,” she continued. “That’s better than a lot of places.”
They lingered in front of Laurie’s car, neither one ready to say goodbye. Jessica had to use the bathroom urgently and finally relieved herself behind the next car over. She carried toilet paper with her and playfully tossed the roll over Laurie’s car, the tissue getting stuck in her mom’s windshield wipers.
This wasn’t the ending Laurie envisioned. Laurie had upturned her life for 3½ months, but Jessica’s life remained exactly the same. Yet at least they’d spent some time together and Jessica was still alive, a small miracle in this city.
Laurie and Jessica hugged tightly. “Well, good luck to you, sweetie,” Laurie said. “You, too,” Jessica said. Laurie set off to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Her phone routed her through the Tenderloin, past the clutch of dealers yet again. “Adios!” she called defiantly. She drove over the bridge, toilet paper still flapping from her wipers.
She stopped in the Marin Headlands to let a Chronicle photographer out of her car and to say goodbye. And then, for the first time, she saw it — the San Francisco that draws people here from around the world for entirely different reasons than the pull that lured her.
The sun’s golden glow flashed off Salesforce Tower. The Transamerica Pyramid jutted into the blue sky. Sailboats dotted the bay. Laurie gasped at the beauty. “God, look at the city,” she said. “Where’s my camera?”
Laurie took photos, climbed back in her car and kept driving.
When she got back to Tacoma, Wash., Laurie got a room in a nonprofit housing facility for single women who can’t afford market-rate apartments, paying $1,100 a month. She’s working as a cook in a restaurant, making $18 an hour plus tips.
Jessica got kicked out of the Monarch hotel and said it was because she didn’t keep the room clean. A spokesperson for the city’s homeless department said she couldn’t comment on Jessica’s case, but the only reasons for eviction from a shelter-in-place hotel are violence, threats of violence, weapons or major property destruction.
On Nov. 15, Laurie flew to San Francisco for two days to see Jessica. She found her on Hyde Street, picking a scrap of foil off the sidewalk to see if it had any fentanyl residue on it. They chatted for a while until Jessica told her she didn’t want to go anywhere, make any plan with her mom or do anything different than stay right there on that sidewalk. They hugged, told each other “I love you” and parted ways once again.