How one homeless man's death impacted the various Haight Street communities he looked after
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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. Belligerent drunks, ambulances speeding to the emergency room half a block north, and road-raged drivers blaring their horns at a badly designed left turn are part of the daily ruckus. Cops show up regularly. "People would call us about trash and shopping carts or about drunks yelling and screaming and fighting each other," Andrews told us. "And you have all types of guys up there in the horseshoe pit."
Hidden amid the trees in the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park, the horseshoe pit is known as a gathering place for hardcore drug users. Nothing remains of its original incarnation except some rusty equipment and a faded life-size mural of a horse. Today it's a haphazard jumble of used needles, sleeping bags, and seedy characters often too messed up to talk. Despite having this hub as his home, Cummings stayed relatively drug-free for the past four years. And between his Veterans Affairs and Social Security checks, he was bringing home about $3,000 a month. Instead of paying rent, Cummings used his income to buy liquor for himself and food for everyone in the park. "Where does all my money go?" he used to ask people walking their dogs as his friends munched on hot dogs and piroshkis on the grass behind him.
"He used to buy cartons of milk and leave them quietly next to people who he thought would need it," remembers Jerry, a 52-year-old chronically homeless man and one of Cummings's best friends.
Cummings kept his past well hidden from his park friends, but when he died, dozens of people in the Upper HaightNorth Panhandle area came out with stories about him from the past two decades, back to a time when he was sober, happily married, and a model member of the community.
"People used to call him the mayor of Cole Valley," said Jacob Black, a cab driver. "He knew everybody in town."
Cummings was born in Melrose, Mass., on March 11, 1954. He lived there with his parents and two siblings until his father, an engineer at a forklift company, was transferred to Oregon in 1971. "[Peter] picked on me a lot, but I always outsmarted him," younger brother Rick Cummings, who is a sales rep in the health care industry, told us. "It was a typical brotherly thing." Cummings joined the Coast Guard at age 20 and developed a lifelong love for the ocean while stationed in Hawaii and Guam. He was honorably discharged in 1978 when he injured his knee on an open hatch cover.
For the next couple years, Cummings wandered around Northern California, growing pot and mushrooms in the mountains and sleeping on the beach. "He always attacked me for my middle-class, suburban lifestyle," Rick says. "He never wanted that." For most of the '80s, Cummings lived under a seedy bridge in downtown Portland, with a heroin addiction and early symptoms of bipolar disorder. He ended up in San Francisco, where he decided to give sobriety a shot. As Rick said, "He had it together enough mentally to know that he had to either get cleaned up or die."
Once in San Francisco, Cummings took lithium for his bipolar disorder, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and by all accounts stayed sober for almost 14 years. For the first time in his adult life, everything was going really well. He got married to a beautiful Peruvian woman, rented an apartment in Cole Valley, bought a used Jaguar and a Boston whaler, which he took out for salmon fishing in the bay, and was constantly surrounded by a solid group of friends. He even worked as a drug rehab counselor at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.
Cummings was known among AA and NA circles as a handsome, spiritual role model with a killer sense of humor who always brought fresh fish to barbecues. "When I got sober, I was living on the streets and hated life," friend Dana Scheer says. "Pete reached out to me as he did to countless people. He was like a sober guru to me I knew him as a very stable, rock-solid person."
Then, around 1998, things started to go downhill. His AA sponsor died of cancer; his wife left him; and the VA screwed up his bipolar meds. Cummings became increasingly isolated. He stopped attending meetings and moved out of the Haight, first to work as a building manager in SoMa and then to pursue a love interest in Mill Valley. "I went over to visit him one day, and he was drinking Coors," Scheer says. "This was my mentor from AA, so it was a little bit shocking." When Scheer left that evening, Cummings gave her a few of his belongings, including a stack of blankets. "I thought that was significant, because he always took care of me," Scheer says. "Blankets symbolize warmth and comfort, and he had always given me that. That was the last time I saw him before he ended up on the street again."
Cummings returned to the Haight around 2000, but this time he was drunk and high and incoherent. "When you're that kind of addict, you don't just start drinking a little wine," Scheer says. Cummings eventually ended up at the horseshoe pit, where he was reunited with some old AA friends who had also relapsed. And that's where he lived for the last seven years of his life.
Despite recent city efforts to abolish camping in Golden Gate Park, Cummings continued to live in the bushes, often changing location to avoid getting caught. "It's completely illegal for people to live in the park," Rose Dennis, director of communications at San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department, told us. "But if you've been on the streets for seven years, you become resilient."
Alioto told us she has no problem with homeless people not wanting a roof over their heads. "If a person truly wanted to live on the street, there is nothing we can or should do," she told us. "They have a constitutional right to live and travel."
On the outside, Cummings the homeless guy was nothing like Cummings the sober guru, but he continued to help people with drug and alcohol problems. "Peter helped a lot of kids get out of bad situations," Jerry told us. "He was in the Coast Guard, so he knew all the vital signs. He saved a lot of lives, including mine twice. I owe him a pair of Levi's from the time I bled all over his after falling down a 30-foot cliff."
Cummings apparently overdosed just a few feet south of the horseshoe pit that had seduced him back into this lifestyle. The week after Cummings died, the Hayes entrance of Golden Gate Park was eerily quiet. "The park is like a cemetery," Jerry said with tears in his eyes. "Everyone's walking around like corpses." His homeless friends scattered to mourn the loss of a friend and source of nourishment in their own way. "When you're living on the streets, people are dying left and right," Scheer says. "And when that happens, you just want to get loaded and forget about everything."
Residents of the North Panhandle didn't have a reason to stop here anymore either." I used to sit on the bench and just talk to him," Christian Blaafjell says. "He was crazy, but he was great. I miss him." Even Andrews is well aware of the impact Cummings's passing will have on the community. "He was the leader of this pack," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen to these guys over here." He pauses. "Hopefully, they'll leave."
The sight of Cummings limping down Hayes Street might have looked bad for the city, but the services he offered to its most fallen people were indispensable. "Maybe he was just doing his job," says James Warren, a friend from Cummings's AA days. "Maybe what he learned from the program, he took to the streets. Pete took his legacy, generosity, love, and compassion back to the streets so that they might know that there was a better place and that he'd been there. I know I wouldn't have made it through if it wasn't for him." *
Peter S. Cummings died May 5 in San Francisco. He is survived by his parents, Richard and Nancy; his sister, Pam; his brother, Rick; and dozens of friends.