Garret’s Golden Rule

by Vix Jensen

Garrett at a Shelter Tech Datathon

Known for its eclectic mix of architecture, trendy hipster food at every corner and a beating heart of tech startups, San Francisco is a forward thinking, buzzy and exciting place to live. It is its own little microcosmic world, as Garret tells us, “representative of every segment of society — every color, every creed, every sexuality” — where, on the surface, everyone is welcome to be themselves, to find themselves and to grow into themselves.

Garret has known and loved the city for a long time. A self-described “Bay Area Boy” he has watched it change and evolve for most of his adult life. He knows the Tenderloin like the back of his hand — places to eat, see friends or go to the doctor. Having moved back to San Francisco in 1985 after graduating from college in San Leandro, and now volunteering at his local senior centre and working for us here at ShelterTech regularly, he has built himself a life here, little by little. He would never move anywhere else, he says, whilst he can afford it, even if it’s just barely. He knows that for a fact.

What he also knows though, is what life is like in such a buzzy, exciting city for a person who doesn’t have a roof over their head. For a person who is lost and struggling, fighting against addiction and financial hardship. He knows how two-faced the city can feel — how it is, in many ways, a melting pot of contradictions. “How can a city keep so many tech companies that can pay the rent, and not keep the homeless shelterized?” he asks, when recounting his own story of homelessness, living in and out of cheap hotels, and sometimes on the street. “If the city continues to cater only to the rich, they will never solve the problem” he muses.

These hypocrisies are obvious to Garret and many others like him, who have fought tooth and nail, from their own rock bottoms, to get their lives on track and to stay in the city. “[From aged 20–45]. my life was a rollercoaster. I worked, I didn’t work. I had money, I had no money. I was using drugs, I was clean”, he explains. “Never bought an album, never went to a movie, never bought a book. I worked. I slept and I did drugs.”. He managed to avoid the shelters, he says, which felt dirty, cold, hostile. But being homeless was a rough time. A lonely time. A scary time — until the change came.

“A lot of how you live is based on how much you care about yourself.” This was the crux of Garret’s realization when, at 45, he quit drugs and, a few years later, cigarettes. He speaks of an inner strength that had been so forceful, so present during his early twenties, when he had worked hard enough and for long enough to get himself a small retirement check — a strength that had lain dormant during his years on the streets. “That’s what I thought [about] when I quit drugs”, he says, “I called upon that something inside of me I hadn’t used in a long time. And I used it”. Finding that light inside of him, a light which he says is made of self-respect and self-love, has helped him stay off the streets and in San Francisco. Since that day, 23 years ago, when he called upon that strength, he has been clean and sober. “I pay my rent and bills. I am nice to people. I don’t get into it with people. I have streamlined my life.”

You might expect resentment from one of the Bay Area’s own sons who spent several decades homeless on the streets of San Francisco “paying for the mistakes [he] made in the first part of [his] life”. You’d be wrong. Although he is frustrated by the slew of near-miss collisions he’s had with reckless people on scooters and skateboards, he says himself that he lives his life by the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — and it is crystal clear. He gives and gives of himself to play his part in making sure that the city of San Francisco grows into a more equal place. To make sure that its people are taken care of and that its money is shared, not simply kept by those who already have it. He stares that melting pot of contradictions in the face and keeps on at it.

Thanks to Garett for his candor, honesty and willingness to share his story with us.