Last June, a small group of costumed 20-something activists from Gay Shame wielding saxophones, loudspeakers booming electronica, and bullhorns held a "séance" on Polk Street to "summon the ghosts of Polk Street’s past."
They performed in front of the recently constructed First Congregational Church what they call "ground zero" for Polk Street gentrification built over the remains of what they characterize as a gay hustler bar pushed out of the area by Lower Polk Neighbors (LPN), an organization not coincidentally holding its monthly meeting just a few feet beyond the window during the ear-splitting performance.
It was one of many ongoing clashes as new condos, upscale businesses, and trendy "metrosexual" bars replace Polk Street’s SRO apartment buildings, shuttered businesses, and hardscrabble hustler bars.
Protesters blamed the transition on LPN, a "pro-gentrification attack squad" working to transform the city’s "last remaining public gathering place for marginalized queers." New business and neighborhood associations counter that they are only working to beautify, make safer, and "revitalize" the area a benefit to everyone, including the street’s marginal residents.
But what has been lost in the noise of this high profile, ongoing clash are the stories, needs, and wishes of the very people purportedly at the center of this conflict: the "marginal queers" and the homeless.
I conducted interviews with more than 60 people during the past year, including sex workers, merchants, the homeless, and social service providers thanks to a grant from the California Council for the Humanities and the sponsorship of the GLBT Historical Society. And I learned that changes on Polk Street stem from a collapse of the area’s community-based economic and social safety nets in the 1990s, combined with the absence of a viable alternative from the city, the neighborhood, or an increasingly affluent gay political establishment.
That trend is illustrated by the story of one such "marginal queer," known on the street as "Corey Longseeker." In a changing neighborhood divided by distrust and tension, it seems that even people from opposing viewpoints are united in their familiarity with a story that has become the stuff of legend: the most beautiful, most successful boy on Polk Street who became the saddest, poorest homeless man in the neighborhood.
Now, during a time of recession and drastic budget cuts to mental health, drug abuse, and HIV-related services, Corey’s story traces the neighborhood’s history and its present challenges.
THEN AND NOW
Corey, now 39, is a constant presence in the neighborhood. He’s always alone when I see him, sometimes sitting on the sidewalk, his head of long stringy hair in his lap, rocking back and forth slightly. Or walking up and down the alleyways, sometimes stooping over and making cupping motions with his arms picking up imaginary children, I’m later told. Or walking slowly, alone, near City Hall, his arms straight by his side, his body hunched.
"I came to San Francisco because I wanted to be an artist," he told me. He speaks slowly, softly, laboring, with long pauses. "When I first got here, there were a lot more people. We used to play guitars and drink beers or smoke a joint and just hang out and stay out of trouble."
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, compounded by years of methamphetamine use and complications related from AIDS a triple diagnosis that is unusually common among homeless people on Polk Street. Corey’s flashes of clarity alternate with moments in which memories blend into different times and places, and seemingly into dreams and fantasy: "I’ve been trying to protect my little self and my little brother and I’m about 500 homicides behind and I don’t know how to bump and grind to pick up the little morsels and the pieces of the people I liked and loved the way I used to know how to." He paused. "So I just keep on."
Dan Diez, now the co-chair of LPN, believes that homeless on the street such as Corey are negatively affecting businesses and residents who "should not have to put up with people sleeping in their doorways." He even talks of moving the homeless to facilities on Treasure Island as one solution. "I think it’s one of the reasons why these condos that have gone up have not been filled."
Corey and Diez may seem to have little in common, but they maintained a close relationship with each other for more than a decade, and Diez felt so close to him that he characterized himself as part of Corey’s "surrogate family."
It was 19 years ago that Diez first laid eyes on Corey, then a fresh-faced 19-year-old who had just moved to San Francisco. Diez, then a city government employee living in the East Bay, was sitting in the Q.T. II, Polk Street’s premier hustler bar on the very plot of land where protesters later clashed with the LPN meeting.
Corey "wasn’t what I expected someone like a hustler to look like," Diez said. "I cannot tell you, this kid had movie star written all over him. He was extremely clean and very attractive and he just looked like somebody who walked out one of these suburban towns."
Dan befriended Corey, taking him to Burger King, listening to rock music in his car while Corey drew and writing poetry. Dan slipped him $20 bills and took him to movies. With time, he also brought him to the spas to clean Corey up, took care of his laundry, and bought him clean underwear and food.
"A lot of the kids on the street were hustling," Diez said, "but I did not pick up at that time. Corey was the only person I was really interested [in] ‘cuz he was something different. He was a person with a creative bent, which I really admired."
Diez says their relationship was not sexual, though he did enjoy being physically close with Corey. "He was someone I liked being around. It was just really a nice relationship."
In a letter Corey wrote in the late 1990s, he calls Dan one of his "sponcers" [sic], along with another man Diez said is a "multi-multimillionaire" and "very well known in San Francisco." This man bought Corey a car and provided him with plenty of cash and drugs as one of his clients. In Corey’s letter, he says the man "made me into a liveing legand [sic] at the age of twenty two years old by letting me have enough money." Corey listed as his "Boss" a bartender at the Q.T., widely known for facilitating hookups between johns and hustlers, and spoken of warmly by many as being a "big mama" to kids on the street.
By this time, many of the buildings that had held thriving businesses in the ’70s and ’80s were shuttered, leaving sex work and drug sales as a few of the street’s dominant economies. People such as Corey, widely considered to be the most beautiful and lucrative sex worker at the time, were Polk Street’s economic engines.
In fact, Q.T. manager Marv Warren was president of the merchant’s association in the 1990s. The sex trade turned profits on the streets and in the bars. "Most of us didn’t like the idea of these kids hanging out because it didn’t look good," Steve Cornell, owner of Brownies Hardware, recalled. "[But] if there are male prostitutes out there and there are businesses that thrive on that, they’re part of the business association too."
THE BOTTOM LINE
The current conflict on Polk Street has been framed as one between profit-hungry business owners and marginalized queers. But on Polk Street, a coveted bloc of city space long zoned as a commercial corridor, the buck has always been the bottom line.
This is not to discount the deeply emotional ties many have to the area, many who reported escaping abusive families and discrimination to find themselves and their first real family in Polk Street. Just the opposite: the history of Polk Street shows that community and commerce were closely linked.
In the early 1960s, gay men bought up failing shops along the street and created posh clothing stores, record shops, and elegant restaurants. Failing bars and taverns cashed in on gay consumer power. The community combined economic and political power to win major gay rights battles.
Most famously, bartenders formed the Tavern Guild in 1962, the nation’s first gay business association, which combined economic self-interest with charitable support for the nascent gay community. According to historian Nan Alamilla Boyd, the Guild "represent[ed] a marketplace activity that, in order to protect itself, evolves into a social movement."
The Imperial Court, part of the Guild’s fundraising arm, elected Empresses who raised funds for people in the community who needed housing, drug treatment, mental health services, or help with their medical bills. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Polk Gulch was a magnet for young people around the country escaping abusive homes and discrimination, and who therefore did not have the educational or employment background to make it on their own in the city.
Anthony Cabello came to Polk Street from a working class family in Fresno as a teenager in the late 1960s, dining as the guest of an older lover at the posh P.S. Lounge. As a student at a nearby college, he formed lifelong relationships with men on the street who took him to fancy hotels, plays, and dinners. "I did not mind the monetary help, but that wasn’t my primary concern," he said. "I was getting exposed to things that normally, I wouldn’t have the ability to do." He toured Europe in a theater troupe, worked a number of jobs on Polk Street, and now manages the neighborhood’s Palo Alto Hotel, which continues to house people living with AIDS and people of meager means.
Coy Ellison found a safe haven in Polk Street as a teenager in 1978. He did under-the-table work at gay businesses through an unofficial job pool at the street’s bars. That allowed him to avoid being caught by the police and sent back to an abusive home. "There were a lot of people doing that at the time," he said. "Let’s say you needed your apartment painted, was there a kid here who knows how to paint and [the bartenders would] send him off." He later climbed the employment ladder through the bars by working as a bouncer, providing support for new young people coming to the area. He now lives a few blocks away with his partner.
Kevin "Kiko" Lobo moved from San Francisco’s Mission District to Polk Gulch in the early 1980s and found work on the street as a sex worker in bars like the Q.T. "Nobody lost because the bar made money, I got a few drinks, and I met clients." He pooled money with his "street family," made up of teenagers escaping abusive homes and discrimination. On the street, "everything was family," Lobo said. "We all looked out for each other. If you didn’t make any money that day it didn’t mean you were going to sleep on the street." Kiko eventually worked his way into the bar business, becoming a bouncer and later a DJ.
Diez learned that Corey grew up in a deeply religious family in a small town in Minnesota. His mother and father worked in factories, and hunted and fished in the countryside. But "something happened in that family," Diez said. "Either he did something really wrong and they could not put up with him, or they did something wrong and he could not put with up with them, or both I don’t know." Corey never graduated high school, instead leaving Minnesota for San Francisco.
Corey gave Dan clues as to his move in a series of letters he wrote him from jail, where he was sent on a series of drug charges in the late 1990s. He wrote about three "childhood nightmares" that were "true life stories" and "part of my past survived existence."
He wrote of being part of a "bunch of little gay boys" in high school who "were not allowed to live a normal life one on one with their partners, among lost immediate family, and unforgiven [sic], misunderstanding, or nonaccepting [sic] religious traditional old fashioned folks.
"Our very own parents used to laugh and giggle, and be cruel to us. And no matter how gifted each child was, our parents watched us and made harsh comments, and truly not funny jokes, and then forced us by broken pride, trust, and rejection to survive in Satan’s swamp.
"Some parents are not willing to understand the flower children of the nineties," Corey wrote, but now "I am trying to step out of a nightmare and back into a Dream … [to] kickstart the new flower child era" in San Francisco, "like the hippies once did, so will we rise above once again."
A San Francisco State University study published in Pediatrics in January found that LGBT youth who reported higher rates of family rejection were eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide, and more than three times more likely to use illegal drugs and have unprotected sex, compared with their peers who reported lower levels of family rejection.
Those escaping persecution also appear more likely to be runaways or homeless. While approximately 3-10 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian or gay, 30 percent of youth served by San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth report that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.
POLK FALLS APART
By the time Corey arrived in 1990, the twin epidemics of AIDS and methamphetamine addiction were wreaking havoc on Polk Street.
Harvard-educated ethnographer Toby Marotta, who worked on several federally funded research projects in the Polk Gulch, said that by the mid-1980s "the whole southern end of Polk Gulch was being transformed because of methamphetamine use."
Speed was the perfect drug for the early days of AIDS, when people were terrified and confused: it produced feelings of euphoria, a sense of invulnerability, focus, and a desire for sex. But while the drug "produced long mind-escapes" for people who used it, Marotta said, it "completely undercut the personal relationships and social obligations essential to functioning community."
Combined with a national recession and a rash of Polk Street business closures, the economic health of the street, and the support systems enabled by it, suffered a tremendous blow. The money, energy, guidance, and options for street youth employment through local bars and businesses were quickly disappearing.
By the late 1970s, the city’s gay political center had moved to the more affluent Castro District. "For those of us that depended on the street to survive, the money was harder and harder and harder to make," Lobo said. "And that’s what [began] the downward spiral. Some very pretty boys have become very ugly people because of the … loss of the great community."
A large homeless shelter moved onto Polk in 1990, along with much of the hardscrabble Tenderloin population. A different kind of john came to the street, and there was less respect for sex workers, leading to more escape through drug use. Ellison left his work at the bars in the 1990s, when the community of bartenders that had kept violent crime in check on the street broke down. Sex workers increasingly started advertising in newspapers, and later on the Internet.
Corey began using the speed that was rampant on the block, quickly becoming addicted. Diez worried that by continuing to give Corey money, which he used for drugs, he was "keeping him where he was at" instead of helping. "I eventually always gave in because I always wanted to see him have something better," Diez said. "I just enjoyed being with him. Even if we weren’t talking and he was just writing, I just liked him being there. He was company."
As Corey began using more speed, his artwork "became wilder and wilder." He started to lose his teeth, and his blonde hair turned brown. "He went down, I would say, fairly fast," Diez recalled. Spas began to refuse to serve him. He would wander into the street to pick up imaginary children, and began to be more difficult to talk with. "He went into a lot of gibberish or psychobabble," Diez recalled. "He started to look almost Charles Manson-like."
James Harris, a Polk Street community member since 1978, met Corey when he came to the city in 1990. Harris left in the mid-’90s, and when he returned in 2001, he barely recognized Corey. "I just could not believe what I was seeing. What was once a strapping, good-looking, young man had been reduced to this homeless, toothless guy. It freaked me out so bad. It took me a little while to get over it."
Harris has no doubt that Corey’s decline was linked to the breakdown of the Polk community. "If Corey came to Polk Street in 1980, he would have a job as bartender maybe, working somewhere, maybe living in the Castro," he said. "No question about it." Many people who now work in Polk Street businesses and social service organizations started as runaways and sex workers on Polk.
"In the ’60s and the ’70s, it was like a big party atmosphere. I, fortunately was taken under several people wings," said Cabello, the Palo Alto Hotel manager. "Now people don’t have the cash flow, ‘cuz economically times have really changed. People who were out partying and being able to take somebody home and help them find a job are basically waiting in line at Social Security and making sure that their housing is together."
INTO THE SYSTEM
Gay bar patronage decreased citywide in the 1980s and 1990s, the result of AIDS-related deaths, a generational shift, and later the rise of the Internet. The Tavern Guild disbanded in 1995, and by the late 1990s, most of the Polk Street bar owners had either died or retired. Most of the remaining gay bars were remade into upscale heterosexual or mixed drinking establishments, serving new residents attracted by low rents during dot.com era.
Lower Polk Neighbors represented this new bloc of business owners. Diez joined LPN in 2001, when he retired and moved to Pacific Heights. They planted trees, cleaned sidewalks, and successfully pressured the city officials to increase the number of police patrols in the area. In one of their most controversial actions, they opposed the relocation of the RendezVous bar, which they blamed for nurturing the street and hustler population.
Corey and people like him, once the street’s economic engine, were now bad for business. After his string of arrests on drug charges in the late 1990s, Corey always came back to Polk Street after being released. In 1997, he was arrested, diagnosed with HIV while in jail, and sent to a psychiatric hospital.
The most recurrent theme in Corey’s letters from this period were finding love and proving to himself that his love was okay. In a poem, he wrote, "God’s gift a soul /it was not shattered, battered, but whole / … My love from within /was not curse … scattered, tattered, or sin/than [sic] I found I did win /see like yang of yin /by forgiving within /my mind and my kin. I’m forgiving their sins."
When the Rev. Megan M. Rohrer, director of the Welcome Ministry, first met him in 2001, Corey was having "loud, yelling conversations" on the sidewalk outside Old First Presbyterian Church, where he often slept at night. "He was having the conversation of the day he came out to her, and his Mom was always trying to tell him why he couldn’t be gay, and why it was a bad thing. He was always trying to have the conversation that that was who he was, and it was how he loved, and he just kept having the conversation over and over and over, trying to have a different result, which never happened."
The organization formed in the late 1990s as a result of complaints about the increasing number of homeless in the area. Rohrer estimates that 98 percent of the homeless who live in the Polk Gulch and come to the Welcome Ministry have been part of the Polk Street sex work industry. Like Corey, they had aged into the general homeless population.
For four years, Rohrer tried unsuccessfully to place Corey in a hospital or get long-term treatment from the city. Ironically, it was the result of increasing neighborhood complaints that he finally found this. "The neighbors were getting really angry and wanted to get rid of the homeless from the area," Rohrer recalls. In 2005, Corey was arrested on drug charges as part of what she characterized as a sting operation.
The breakthrough came when he was arrested and declared mentally unfit to stand trial for the first time since 1997. The court sent him to Napa State Hospital, a secured mental facility where he was required to take medications. "Finally Corey was getting the mental health services he needed," she said.
In the absence of sufficient social services, this has become standard policing practice, according to Al Casciato, who heads San Francisco Police Department’s Northern Station. "We do not have a front end to the criminal justice system in the health arena that allows us to take these people and put them in a secure facility," he told the Guardian.
"What happens is that we wait until they get in trouble in order to put them in jail to get them off the street and then try to get them into services. We should be trying to get them into services first, but we do not have the capacity to accept everybody into services." Even after police convince a person to use services, during the long waits due to the lack of services, sometimes months at a time, "they fall back into their pattern of either drug abuse, or if they have a mental health issue, their depression starts to spin out again."
Corey was at Napa State for nearly a year on medications. "Corey make some really good strides there," Diez said. "He was also at his artistic high points … he built balsawood airplanes that he gave to children." When he was declared competent to stand trial and sent back to San Francisco, "he was like a completely different person," Rohrer recalled. "He was so with it. He was really clear about what he wanted and where he wanted to go."
But Rohrer spent two months navigating the bureaucracy to get Corey the medication he needed, during which he had slid back into schizophrenia and was no longer willing to take his prescriptions. "It was like watching Corey emerge in this beautiful way and then to disappear," Rohrer said. He’s never been back on medication, and his condition has not improved.
Rohrer was able to find him housing in a nearby SRO hotel through the Homeless Outreach Team, instituted in 2004 as part of Care Not Cash part of a dramatic move indoors for the homeless in the area. It was an improvement from the streets, on which the supportive "street families" had now broken down. But it’s unclear whether Corey is capable of living on his own, or whether the case managers assigned to him are sufficient.
"They weren’t there," Diez says. "Because I was vacuuming his floor, I was cleaning his sink, I was taking his dirty clothes out. As much as I hate to say it, Corey needs to be in a medical facility where he can have some psychiatric help."
When I visited Corey in his apartment a few months ago, cartoons played on the television, the only piece of furniture other than his bed. His walls were bare and the sink fastened to the wall was clogged with brackish water. The carpet was filthy with cigarette butts and a mouse ran over my feet.
Now, with major budget cuts across the board, services are being cut at the time when they are most needed. This will have a tremendous negative impact not only on people like Corey, but also on business owners and service providers in the Polk neighborhood.
The Welcome Ministry will lose big grants next year, Rohrer said. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says that budget cuts in the works will have a "huge and dramatic impact" on people like Corey and will "devastate" mental health treatment services with as much as a 44 percent reduction in the publicly-funded mental health treatment system and similar reductions for substance abuse treatment.
Ann R.P. Harrison, director of New Leaf, a mental health organization that serves 1,500 LGBT people a year, says they recently reduced staff hours and the amount of services offered, and, like most nonprofits, are looking at up to a 20 percent budget reduction starting July.
Toby Eastman of Larkin Street Youth, which serves youth under 25, says that $100,000 in HIV prevention services cuts from the Department of Public Health mean "significantly reduced the prevention staff." Eastman expects the cuts to increase next year, at a time when she sees other smaller agencies closing their doors.
Diez and Rohrer take away different lessons from their experiences with Corey. Diez says he has "hardened" about homelessness and has stopped talking with Corey. "I was an enabler for him, which I didn’t like doing but I was always hoping that what I was doing was helping him," he said. "But maybe not. Corey made choices, and maybe they weren’t good choices. And you can’t blame that on the city. It’s gotta go both ways." Once the keeper of Corey’s Social Security card, money, and other personal items, he has now handed that responsibility to Rohrer.
Rohrer sees a failure of the social safety net. "There’s a barrier to getting mental health services that seems like it’s set up so that people will fail," she said. "Places that accept MediCal or city patients can take two months before they can get an appointment. The hospital does not even have the capacity to help those police deem a threat to themselves or others."
"There were gay bars here, and there were affluent men, and that’s not here anymore," Diez said. "The bars are gone, those people who went to those bars don’t come anymore, and Corey’s just a remnant. He’s just existing. He’s surviving. He’s just something that’s eventually going to disappear from the scene."
For now, Corey poses both a challenge for the emerging Polk community and an opportunity for a divided neighborhood to find common ground. He still has dreams, Rohrer says, even if they might not be realistic. "We’re not expecting him to be a Wall Street CEO," she said. "But he’s always going to be stuck in the past if he doesn’t achieve some of his future hopes."
Joey Plaster is curator of "Polk Street: Lives in Transition," an exhibit open through May 31 at the GLBT Historical Society. More information at www.glbthistory.org/PolkProject.