[Hpn] He came to San Francisco a broken man. Speaking out for the homeless made him whole.
William C. Tinker
Wed, 2 Feb 2005 07:12:51 -0500
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Wednesday, February 2, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
He came to San Francisco a broken man. Speaking out for the homeless made
Mike Weiss, Chronicle Staff Writer
In 1989 Chance Martin abandoned his middle-class possessions -- all
for his Vuarnet wrap-around sunglasses -- and pulled out of Chicago with a
plan firmly in mind: See California before he died, then throw himself off
the Golden Gate Bridge.
He was only half successful.
On a recent winter morning, with the fog wrapping the city in a gray
cocoon, Martin, now 50 and the editor of the Street Sheet -- a newspaper
that champions the homeless and chronicles their desperation -- sat in a
Tenderloin coffee shop beneath a plastic hibiscus and explained how his
plan had gone right by going awry.
"I was ready to write the whole thing off," he said. "I had a heating and
air conditioning business. I was reporting $60,000 a year. My wife
divorced me. A year later I'd find myself at stoplights, weeping. A doctor
put me on lithium and Prozac, and it triggered a reaction like mania.
Three months later I was homeless and headed to California.
"You know," he said, sipping from his coffee mug, "this is really a
place. A really small town -- you can make a difference. What saved my
life was meaningful social engagement." He laughed, a smoker's throaty
guffaw that punctuates his talk.
"I like to say that one day instead of suffering my mental illness I
decided to make everybody else suffer."
The son of a Gary, Ind., steel mill worker, he planned to attend college
and study literature. But in 1972 he was busted at a party where marijuana
was being smoked, and faced five years prison time.
"Indiana doesn't screw around," he said, his mild eyes lit by humor.
Today, as most days, he was wearing a shapeless, ribbed sweater over his
medium-sized, round-shouldered torso, jeans that had lost their shape, and
a baseball cap to keep his bald spot warm.
Chance's father persuaded a justice of the peace to expunge his arrest,
his son -- his name then was Kenneth, Chance being a nom de plume he took
in San Francisco -- agreed to serve in the armed forces. The war was
raging in Vietnam. On the other hand, says Martin, he had been gang-raped
He served as an avionics technician, and never saw combat. Nonetheless,
his military service "kind of devalued my life" by depriving him of a
sense of purpose or control of his own destiny.
After his discharge there were jobs, and marriages -- three of them --
a daughter with whom he no longer is in contact. By the time of his last
divorce -- the one that precipitated his plan to kill himself -- a lot of
bridges were in smoldering ruins.
Asked if his parents are alive, he answered: "I don't know."
A moment later he added: "I made some bad decisions. I have a lot of
regret. Sometimes I feel like what I'm doing now is squaring the ledger."
For about five years he's been putting out the Street Sheet, which has
been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989. It is unique
among similar papers around the country in that it is mostly written,
edited and distributed by people who are, or were, homeless.
"We never purported to be true journalism," says Lydia Ely, its first
editor. "A lot of muckraking, a lot of exposÚs." Also, poems and editorial
cartoons. "We always wanted people to be political as well as personal.
The Street Sheet's approach to homelessness, said Martin, is multi-
faceted. For one thing, it seeks to persuade that the cure for
homelessness begins with social justice, not social control.
"Care not Cash is a page out of social control," Martin said about Mayor
Gavin Newsom's controversial but popular plan to provide housing for
homeless people while significantly reducing their cash payments.
"The people who paid for the Care not Cash campaign -- the hotel council,
the building owners, the restaurant association -- have a very
understandable dilemma," Martin continued. "The proximity of homeless
people affects their ability to make money. "When they see a homeless
person, that person is the problem.
"I'm a homeless advocate. When I see a homeless person I understand the
problem is a lack of housing, a lack of accessible health care, a lack of
a living-wage job and educational opportunities."
For another thing, Street Sheet -- which prints about 36,000 copies a
month and is distributed mainly downtown for a suggested price of a dollar
-- helps to support the people selling it.
"It's one of the last low-threshold income opportunities homeless people
can avail themselves of," said Martin. "I've got 400 vendors. If you work
hard, and are good at it, you can make $30 or $40 a day. Legally."
His reasonable and reasoned approach and his good humor help make Street
Sheet distinctive. When the mayor gave his first annual homeless address
in December, Martin's analysis ran two full pages. It was illustrated with
a photo of Newsom and the caption: "Anyone the Christian Right hates so
much can't be all bad."
But there aren't a lot of laughs to be found around homelessness, as
Martin knows. He is, himself, presently without a home, crashing with
various friends. From June through January his full-time-plus job was
paying half- wages as the Coalition struggled with diminished financing.
He was pulling down $14,000. "About enough to ensure I stayed homeless,"
he said. "It's getting difficult." (In late January came word that he
would go back on full salary, $23,000, enough to rent a room again.)
He also serves without pay on the board of Media Alliance, and was
appointed by Supervisor Chris Daly to the city's mental health board.
"You know," Martin said, preparing to leave the coffee shop, "there's
always been people with drinking problems, with mental health issues. They
weren't homeless when I was a kid. Now they're very much under attack. And
the rhetoric of 'social responsibility' is just an alibi our politicians
give for evading their social responsibility."
His most powerful writing combines his ability to turn a neat thought
his personal understanding of what homelessness feels like.
"It's always unconscious. I know I'm hitting the mark when tears begin
hitting the keyboard. People don't understand how much homelessness
hurts." Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he removed his glasses
and wiped the tears with a paper napkin. "I can't tell you what a blow to
someone's self- confidence and dignity it is to be homeless."
By the time Martin arrived in San Francisco from Chicago it was 1992 --
got sidetracked for a few years in Los Angeles, where he developed a hard-
drug dependency, and found his way into the mental health system.
His first home here was Baker Street House, a residence for the mentally
ill. "I don't care if people know I've been diagnosed as mentally ill," he
said. "The tragedy is that only one in 10 who are diagnosed will ever
return to the workforce. To give somebody hope you've got to give them
meaningful social engagement. Not a chore, not cleaning the bathroom. When
you're actually helping shape your future, when you see your work valued."
That was what he found at the Coalition on Homelessness. He credits its
founder and his mentor, Paul Boden, for helping save his life by teaching
him the problem wasn't a lack of charity, it was a lack of justice. Boden
also insisted Martin stop using hard drugs or else hit the road.
"Chance is a great writer," says Boden. "He puts his demons out there for
everyone to see. That's a risk. Whatever the Coalition was to him, he was
strong enough to keep coming back, working hard, answering phones,
cleaning bathrooms because he saw they needed cleaning.
"But 'saved his life?' I hear that rap from many people. It's not true.
The Coalition wasn't here for him. The Coalition was here. He found it. He
saved his own life."
And the meaning he's found, Martin said, is inexhaustible. "It's a big
responsibility when you're perceived as a top gun," he said, "even only
among homeless advocates. It would waste so much work we've done if I did
something stupid. I got a lot of work to do before I'm done."
The first time he was allowed to leave Baker Street House unescorted, he
recalled, he walked up and over Pacific Heights, and all the way to the
Marina. He could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance but had no
desire to go there.
Instead, he was overcome with conviction.
"I was waiting all my life to live here. A lot of people come here for a
lot of reasons. But I really do believe some of us are called here." He
laughed his characteristic guffaw, and drew on his cigarette. "And I don't
want to get too religious and metaphysical beyond that."
E-mail Mike Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle