Hole in the street

How one homeless man's death impacted the various Haight Street communities he looked after


It was warmer than usual that Saturday morning in Golden Gate Park. Peter Cummings woke up behind a bush, took his shirt and shoes off, put on his headphones, and staggered down the hill with a bottle of whiskey and a big smile on his bearded, dirt-stained face. He sat down on the bench at Stanyan and Hayes and greeted passersby in his usual charmingly rambunctious way. For the past seven years, this had more or less been his daily routine.

The only thing that made this day different was the food and the heroin. That morning Cummings skipped breakfast. He usually went to the corner deli to buy some bread and soup, but not this particular Saturday. Then, around 2 p.m., a couple guys walking down the hill found Cummings convulsing in a quiet nook behind a fallen log. One of them gave him CPR and a Narcan shot, and a couple others ran across the street to St. Mary's Medical Center to get the paramedics. But it was too late.

Hundreds of homeless people die every year in San Francisco, and many of them leave our world silently and with little impact on the city. But the loss of this particular alcoholic, bipolar, homeless man changed the landscape of one San Francisco neighborhood. As Gavin Newsom's administration aggressively pursues its 10-year plan to abolish chronic homelessness, this man's legacy shows how someone living in the park may actually be a good thing — if not for himself, then at least for the community.

"He watched out for me," Cirrus Blaafjell, who lives in the neighborhood, told the Guardian. "Some of the guys would harass me when I came out here at night to walk the dogs, and Pete would yell at them, 'Leave her alone. She's a nice person!'" When University of San Francisco student Amanda Anderson was followed through the park one day by a seedy character, Cummings launched his own inquiry. "Who tried to hurt Amanda? I'm gonna beat his ass when I find him!" Cummings yelled into the trees.

Even certain city officials agree. "He did seem to keep all the other drunks in line," Officer John Andrews of the San Francisco Police Department told us. "A lot of times when we had a problem, he'd come around and say, 'Hey, Andrews, we're taking care of things. Don't worry.' If someone was really intoxicated, he'd take them into the bushes. And he never argued with anyone."

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers people to be chronically homeless if they're alone, disabled, and have been sleeping on the streets or in shelters for a year straight or intermittently for three years. Newsom's initiatives aim to put all 3,000 chronically homeless residents of San Francisco into permanent homes by 2014. "It's a concept based on Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point," Angela Alioto, the chairperson of the 10-year plan, explained. "If you take care of those who are the most chronic and use the most resources first, you will tip the scale of the whole problem."

But the Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group, disagrees. "The phrase chronically homeless is misleading," director Juan Prada told us. "Chronic makes you think of general health issues, so you create an impression that homelessness is a condition. We see homelessness as a systemic failure to address poverty and the lack of housing."

Cummings, who lived in the park for the past seven years, was definitely chronically homeless. But had he survived another seven years to see the mayor's initiative come to fruition, he may not have ever accepted the helping hand. "I live here by choice," Cummings once told me. "I have money, I have a place to go. I just like it here."

The corner of Stanyan and Hayes is almost never quiet.