James Durgin has been charged with 54 crimes. That’s in addition to 104 misdemeanor cases. Judges ordered him to undergo a dozen mental health evaluations. He was represented by more than 40 public defenders, who represented him against more than 40 assistant district attorneys.
He was sent to various prisons and drug rehabilitation centers, but always ended up on the streets of San Francisco. And the forests of the Presidio. He is “the man in the woods”, as some call him, prowling and stalking residents late at night.
He’s also the new face of San Francisco’s homelessness disaster, the poster boy for the NBC Bay Area docuseries “Saving San Francisco,” which follows Durgin’s journey through drug addiction and homelessness and uses his history as a proxy for discussing larger societal issues and system. failures facing The City.
The first installment of this ambitious work was released this week, with senior investigative journalist Bigad Shaban, alongside producer Robert Campos, unearthing a story of criminal, judicial and public health negligence that left almost everyone involved in a worse place.
“We came across this story involving this really quiet and quaint neighborhood of the Presidio. To hear some people say, there was a boogie man in the woods,” Shaban said. “That story was emblematic of so many things that San Francisco is struggling with right now. Homelessness. Poverty. Gentrification. Mental health. … The notion of what it means to be safe or unsafe in this city.
Durgin makes a grand entrance in the first episode, titled “The Man in the Woods”. The opening sequence shows the majestic beauty of the northwest corner of San Francisco, where a woman named Ann Rea has lived in a rental for 15 years. She thought it was heaven, but now it’s become a nightmare.
It’s because Durgin is stalking her. Truly chilling video footage shows him at his door in the middle of the night, shaking the doorknob and trying to get in. In one shot, he’s naked during a 3 a.m. visit.
She called San Francisco police more than 50 times in the past five years about Durgin and got a restraining order against him. But he always came back.
“I worry about when I go to sleep at night, if he’s going to break the windows and go upstairs,” Rea told NBC. “And so I sleep with a taser and a single-bladed knife. Every night.”
NBC dug into Durgin’s story to tell the larger story. He grew up in Duxbury, Mass. His friends say he was a charismatic classmate, who they expected would one day change the world. He was an English teacher at Woodside Priory, a boarding school in Portola Valley, and once very proud of his sobriety, helping others along that path. But somewhere along the line, things went horribly wrong.
Campos told me, according to court records, you can start finding Durgin’s name in the early 2000s.
A quick look online led me to Durgin’s Facebook page, where you can see a series of demented posts depicting meth pipes and increasingly delusional writing, dating back to 2017. To date, the man still has 632 friends on the social media platform, and it’s heartbreaking to see his high school classmates begging him for help in commenting on his posts. A lot of people were supporting this guy.
None of this seemed to work. Friends, judges, lawyers and social workers couldn’t get Durgin back on his feet. And that’s why this story is important. Our systems fail us. How do we fix them?
I asked Shaban about his main findings from the project, which took about a year to report. He has come to believe that the various institutions involved in addressing homelessness, addictions and mental health do not communicate well enough. The various silos don’t talk to each other, allowing people like Durgin to slip through the cracks, using systems like San Francisco’s diversion courts to avoid jail time by accepting rehab instead. Often Durgin would just walk out the door.
“He’s been back and forth in prison for two decades,” Shaban said. “If you just look at the amount of time and money that has gone into a man’s journey through the criminal justice system, it’s amazing. But he wasn’t really helped by any of this.
Which leads to broader issues of accountability and solutions.
“You’re going to hear a whole long list of officials,” Shaban said. “You will definitely hear Chesa Boudin in this room. We have an exclusive interview with Mayor (London) Breed which was an interesting interaction. The hope is to hold people accountable for what happened and will happen in San Francisco. There is no magic potion to fix the city. We hope to give people information to make sense of it.
I plan to watch the series, which airs every Monday for the next five weeks. In the meantime, the harsh reality of San Francisco remains. A man was stabbed and killed on Sixth Street the other day. A woman celebrating a birthday with friends and their daughters in Ocean Beach was attacked with an aluminum can by a mental patient, sending her to hospital with serious injuries. Not a day goes by that we don’t see the misery and destruction in our streets.
What do we do about it? Three different developments worth noting emerged this week.
First, the Coalition on Homelessness released a report on Wednesday that showed The City and its army of nonprofit partners were not connecting people to effective social services. Specifically, the study targets San Francisco’s “coordinated entry” system, which is supposed to connect housing applicants, for reform.
“Our current system hides the real need for housing and other services by telling people who are homeless that they don’t have enough to deserve services,” said Ian James, organizing director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “We must move away from a system of scarcity if we are to understand, let alone solve, San Francisco’s housing crisis.”
The group goes on to list 35 proposed changes to coordinated entry, emphasizing the move from a “system of prioritization to one of targeting individuals to the appropriate services.”
Given recent news that nearly 900 available homes are vacant in San Francisco, as the list of approved and unapproved applicants grows, the targeted reforms outlined in this study seem appropriate. Let’s see if anyone is listening.
The second development this week involved the unveiling of another coalition of homeless service providers, combining private and public interests, calling themselves the Urban Vision Alliance. The 32-member group has $7.8 million in its coffers, which isn’t a lot in this town, but it has an interesting ideological bent.
Instead of following only the “housing first” ideology promoted by the federal government, which promotes people’s access to permanent housing as a crucial first step to ending homelessness, the group recognizes that a Transitional housing, combined with a healthy dose of services and other housing solutions, is needed to ease San Francisco’s crisis.
“At the heart of the Urban Vision Alliance is a coalition of inspired people who believe street homelessness can be solved; and that we have the land, capital and expertise to do so,” said Gabriel Baldinucci, CEO of Urban Vision Alliance. “AVU’s goal is to bring these stakeholders together to collaborate on new ways to help our fellow citizens experiencing street homelessness and improve our cities.”
The Salvation Army is a big part of the early plans, announcing it will build 1,500 beds in San Francisco to provide housing and wrap services.
The group points to San Antonio as a success story, where businesses and the government have built a sort of complex downtown to house the homeless for periods of two to three years. They believe that this type of transitional housing, combined with services, works best. It’s better, at least, than getting someone into a unit and then finding piecemeal services.
Third, and most importantly, Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced his plan to overhaul California’s ailing mental health system, unveiling an idea he calls Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, or CARE Court. The proposal, which must be approved by the state legislature, would create a structure where people in trouble could be referred to this system before committing a crime, creating a pathway to county care and services. If people entering this path cannot complete the programs provided, then there would be another path to state guardianship.
“CARE Court is about meeting people where they are and acting with compassion to support the thousands of Californians living on our streets with serious mental health and addiction challenges,” Newsom said.
Put those three things together, and we might be heading for the compassionate, common-sense solution that San Francisco is looking for.
Maybe that’s what the James Durgins of the world need.
Editor’s note: The Arena, a column by Al Saracevic of The Examiner. explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, jokes and quotes to [email protected]