Last month I wrote about an investigative series of reports produced by NBC Bay Area. Collectively titled “Saving San Francisco” they tell the story of one homeless man named James Durgin and try to make sense of how his life, which once seemed together and somewhat normal, spiraled into drug abuse and homelessness.
The first four segments of the series are here and describe how James went from being a college grad and a boarding school English teacher to an addict who has been arrested and jailed many times. He eventually became known as “The Man in the Woods” because he took up residence in a forested area north of the city.
Part five of the series returned to Durgin’s conflict with a woman named Ann Rea who lives in an apartment adjacent to the woods that Durgin calls home. Durgin has showed up at Rea’s house several times, once naked, and has left her chalk messages that say “I [heart] U, wink.” Rea believes he’s a bit obsessed with her and despite filing a restraining order against him, she is afraid that the next time he gets out of jail, he’ll return and try to get in to her house. Rea says she sleeps with a taser and a knife near her bed every night.
In part 6, titled “I’m Not That Guy” the reporter behind the series finally gets to sit down with Durgin for a jailhouse interview. Durgin seems happy to discuss his life before drugs and homelessness but when the reporter brings up Ann Rea, he says “Uh oh!”
“I am convinced that if Ms. Rea and I had a chance to talk, go for a walk on the beach, have some tea, that we would not be in this situation at all,” Durgin said. He continued, “I’m sure we could be best friends.”
Asked if he was obsessed with her, Durgin denied it. He admitted to showing up to her house naked and claimed he was trying to show vulnerability on the advice of a friend. He admitted to writing chalk messages outside her house but claimed the messages weren’t for Ann. Watch the clip for yourself but it seems pretty clear to me Durgin is lying, trying to spin his drugged out behavior in a way that is non-threatening.
Meanwhile, police say he’s been arrested 60 times and Durgin himself claims the actual number is closer to 140 times. Either way, it’s clear the system isn’t really doing much for James Durgin. The video notes that he was released a couple weeks after this interview was recorded and sent to a rehab facility. While there he got in a fight and was kicked out. When he returned to court for failing to complete his stint in rehab he shouted at some deputies and the judge sent him back to jail.
And just last month he went though the whole cycle two more times. He was sent to rehab, ran away, was arrested, sent to rehab, ran away, was arrested again and sent back to jail.
This appears to be the final segment of the series and it doesn’t end with any real conclusions beyond the idea that the homeless are individuals who have failed and are being failed by being allowed to continue on this merry-go-round of drug addiction and jail. There has to be a better way but even the people interviewed in this series don’t agree what that would be.
That’s ultimately the problem this series hints at but doesn’t really confront. In my view, James Durgin is being failed by the defense attorneys and the progressive DAs who think after 14 years on the street as an addict he’s going to turn it around with one more stint in rehab before sending him back out on the street. It’s clearly not going to happen. It’s not happening for about 8,000 other homeless people in San Francisco either.
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