Kona, an adorable little Chihuahua mix who lives with his owner in our local senior housing complex, doesn’t get excited about much. He’s indifferent to any sort of attention, doesn’t like to be pet by strangers, and might nip you if you try.
But Kona was obsessed with Barry, the homeless man who lived on my block here in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.
Whenever he spotted Barry, Kona’s tail would start wagging wildly. He’d race down the sidewalk and leap into Barry’s arms, licking the man’s face with abandon. The two of them shared unconditional love. Kona and Barry were best friends.
Barry LeBlanc was found dead this week, dying on the same sidewalk he called his home for twenty years.
Each morning I’d see Barry at Peet’s coffee nearby and we’d say hello to each other. He was a fixture of the block when I arrived a decade ago, with his shopping cart full of ragtag belongings and a ubiquitous broom that he used to sweep the neighborhood.
He was a kind soul, with a scraggly beard and countenance reminiscent of Santa. He seemed to go out of his way to try not to be a bother to anyone. I’d never seen him panhandle.
When an out-of-town friend came to visit me once, she walked over to Barry and asked if he needed help.
“Can I give you some money?”
“Can you afford it?” Barry replied.
“Yes, I can,” my friend said, wondering if the question was some sort of joke. She took several bills from her purse.
“Only two dollars,” Barry said. He didn’t need or want anything more than that.
Everyone here knew Barry, even if they actually knew very little about him. His age was unclear, though he seemed to be at least in his sixties. Now that he’s gone all sorts of stories are emerging: that he lost his partner to AIDS, and after a mental breakdown and despair ended up living on the streets. I’d heard he was once a teacher.
Those are just stories, not confirmed truths.
It’s also not clear how Barry died, although some who saw him in the days before his death said his health had suddenly and dramatically declined. There are reports that homeless outreach teams were contacted to intervene. Barry is said to have told people that he would die soon.
Again, none of this is confirmed.
What we do know for sure about Barry is that he was an artist. With his sketchpad he would create elaborate, beautiful illustrations. Some of them are now on display at a makeshift memorial to Barry on 16th Street near Market. His shopping cart is there too, along with his broom.
We also know that Barry suffered from some sort of mental illness. He did not care for himself, and would often be covered in his own waste. His fingernails had become overgrown blackened talons. And although he was amiable much of the time, he also had long conversations with no one but himself. Once I thought I heard him talking on a cellphone. It was a stick.
The truth is that Barry was a fellow human being, but he was also an example of just how complex and relentlessly difficult the city’s homeless crisis has become. We are one of the smartest and wealthiest cities on the planet, and it’s maddening to see the city continuously fail to help those in need. Hundreds of millions have been spent, and yet we can’t seem to make progress.
Barry’s life and death shows why.
The fact is that homeless outreach teams regularly visited Barry. I watched as they repeatedly offered to get him off the streets and into housing, with healthcare, food and support. Barry rejected the assistance. Yet the attempts to help never stopped.
Barry was not a danger to others, but with his death it’s clear that he was a danger to himself. That’s supposed to be enough to warrant a more forceful intervention. But in a society that prides itself on protecting the rights of individuals, using force is an extraordinarily difficult case to make.
The finger pointing has already started. Should the city have done more to help Barry? Should those in the neighborhood have done more?
Barry survived for so long on the streets because the neighborhood took care of him. That’s where the food, clothing and money that allowed him to subsist came from. This morning at Peet’s all the talk was about remembering Barry. People were genuinely upset.
There was no easy answer for solving Barry’s problems. Our vast government system to eliminate poverty and despair could not help him. Instead, for twenty years his life was held together by a patchwork of small, neighborhood kindnesses.
Including the love of a dog.