SHAME OF THE CITY / Homeless 'mascots' find niche in tony neighborhoods
- 'Mascots' can live well -- by homeless' standards -- if they become accepted in an upscale neighborhood. Chronicle photo by Brant WardCredit: BRANT WARD
For a homeless guy, Mike Carreiro has it made.
He lives in alleys and side yards on a trendy stretch of Polk Street, has all the clean clothes he needs and never goes hungry. That's because shopkeepers and residents take care of Carreiro. He is, as some put it, their "mascot."
Across town on Potrero Hill, Charles has a similar arrangement. He spreads his shoeshine kit outside a fashionable market every morning, and while he shines, shopkeepers give him sandwiches and odd jobs. At night, he sleeps beneath a freeway, and if he's not back the next day, the neighborhood worries.
"He's our Potrero 'mascot,' " said Alison Hotchkiss, who lives on the hill and tosses Charles -- who never gives his last name -- a dollar most times she sees him. "I mean that in the nicest way possible. He's been here forever, and he's a nice guy."
There are dozens of "mascots" like Carreiro and Charles throughout the city -- quiet, friendly homeless people who have been in the same spot so long they have become part of their upscale neighborhoods.
Most of San Francisco's 8,600 to 15,000 homeless cluster around downtown's social services and main panhandling routes, but by living in the outlying neighborhoods, "mascots" avoid the turmoil, competition and danger of that central nexus -- and have a comparatively decent life.
The technique for becoming a "mascot" is this: Pick an upscale area, stick to it, stay polite and unobtrusive, and shoo off any competition. Residents of these neighborhoods admit they'd rather not have any homeless around, but they say at least "mascots" help keep out the less desirable ones.
"Mascots" can be found in the Castro, where one man lived seven years in a parking lot near the All American Boy store, and in Noe Valley's 24th Street shopping district. They are also in parts of the Sunset -- and, in the case of Carreiro and Charles, Russian Hill and Potrero Hill.
"He's a good man, a real staple of the neighborhood," Jason Coleman, the barista at Tully's Coffee on Polk Street, said one afternoon. Nearby, Carreiro sat at the cafe's marble-top counter sipping a warm cup. "He helps out sometimes, never causes trouble."
Carreiro, 47, is a squat man with a bushy black beard and glasses as thick as an ashtray. He grinned as he listened to Coleman.
"Good conversation, too, eh?" he said, and the two laughed. "It's true!" Coleman shot back.
The cafe was full of the Dockers-wearing office-worker set, and Carreiro chatted for an hour with several customers before strolling outside to take up his usual station on the sidewalk. There he sat on a milk crate holding two signs: One, a flyer asking for donations to the homeless charity at a local church -- which he helped start -- and the other, a cardboard scrap reading, "Just 23 Cents."
"It's a good marketing ploy," he said with a wink, waving the 23-cent sign. "Catches their eyes, then I can talk to them about the fund at the church."
Carreiro lost his last janitorial job three years ago, and once his savings and support from friends and family ran dry, he hunted for an area he knew would be safe. Polk, near Vallejo Street, had churches he was familiar with and he figured the residents would be easygoing.
And they are -- as long as he is, too.
Carreiro can panhandle about $20 on a good day from those strolling the boutiques and gourmet shops. And by picking out-of-sight spots between the churches and expensive houses, he can sleep peacefully through the night. Sometimes he gets handyman work; one man let him sand his floor for $10 an hour.
"We've kind of adopted him in this neighborhood," said Megan Rohrer, director of the Welcome Ministry at the Old First Presbyterian Church. "A lot of people just love him." Carreiro helped found the S.F. Neighbors Foundation at the church, she said, and he arranges more donations of clothes and blankets than anyone else.
But he can't seem to abandon his outdoor life. "He has this amazing drive to do things for other people, but not so much a drive to help himself," Rohrer said. "It kind of breaks your heart."
"We'd rather not have any panhandlers at all," said Mimi, a worker at a local laundry who didn't want her last name printed. "But there's no real trouble, so what are you going to do?"
Carreiro said he is sensitive to that viewpoint, and that's why he works hard to fit in. It's a matter of survival.
"Back down the hill with the other homeless, you get all those dope fiends, people whacked out all the time," Carreiro said, smiling as a pinstriped passer-by dropped $5 into his cup. "They don't come out this far. That's why I'm here. We keep things nice."
That's what 59-year-old Charles says, three miles away at the corner of Texas and 18th streets.
There, on the northern slope of Potrero Hill -- where gentrified Victorians overlook art galleries and coffee bars -- Charles has little problem eating or finding bus fare. That's because for the past three years, the neighborhood has given him a helping hand -- and most of all, respect.
He sets up his tiny box of supplies on the sidewalk outside the New Potrero Market and shines shoes every day for a buck or two a shine. A thin, bearded fellow with a shy smile, he is quiet and polite.
When not at his corner, Charles sleeps in a cardboard refrigerator box under Interstate 280, and he showers at a nearby soup kitchen. He appeared one day three years ago, and has rebuffed any offers to hook him up with social services so he can live inside.
"I was born and raised in this city, and I've had a full life," he said one day as he carefully laid his cans and brushes. "I built houses as a young man, worked on ships, and now I just do this.
"People are nice here. Someday, I'll get off the street, but this is my life today."
Workers at the New Potrero Market and the cafes bring Charles lunch, and some mornings they let him help unload deliveries. Delisa Heiman, who owns the Collage art gallery on Charles' block, has hired him to clean her windows for $10.
"He's not all there, always, but he's very sweet. We take care of him," she said. "Other homeless guys come and go, but they leave fast. This is Charles' territory."
A few blocks away at Martin De Porre's homeless "House of Hospitality," counselor Jim Haber has seen several "mascots" like Charles over the years. Perhaps the most tragic was the "Voodoo Man," who was taken under the wing of dot-com workers at 16th and Utah streets for about three years.
He had a bad habit of standing in the street trying to cast a spell on oncoming cars -- and in December 2000, one hit him. He died and was recorded at the city morgue as John Doe No. 135. As with Charles, nobody knew his full name.
Most "mascots" don't meet that drastic an end. Their relationship with their neighborhoods can go on for years, Haber said, as long as nobody has unreasonable expectations.
"People have to realize what they are doing out of the goodness of their hearts is not a jobs program, and they shouldn't get mad if the homeless person doesn't get up off the street," Haber said. "If that's clear, things go fine."