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He came to San Francisco a broken man. Speaking out for the homeless made him whole.
- Mike Weiss, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
In 1989 Chance Martin abandoned his middle-class possessions -- all except for his Vuarnet wrap-around sunglasses -- and pulled out of Chicago with a plan firmly in mind: See California before he died, then throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge.
He was only half successful.
On a recent winter morning, with the fog wrapping the city in a gray cocoon, Martin, now 50 and the editor of the Street Sheet -- a newspaper that champions the homeless and chronicles their desperation -- sat in a Tenderloin coffee shop beneath a plastic hibiscus and explained how his plan had gone right by going awry.
"I was ready to write the whole thing off," he said. "I had a heating and air conditioning business. I was reporting $60,000 a year. My wife divorced me. A year later I'd find myself at stoplights, weeping. A doctor put me on lithium and Prozac, and it triggered a reaction like mania. Three months later I was homeless and headed to California.
"You know," he said, sipping from his coffee mug, "this is really a unique place. A really small town -- you can make a difference. What saved my life was meaningful social engagement." He laughed, a smoker's throaty guffaw that punctuates his talk.
"I like to say that one day instead of suffering my mental illness I decided to make everybody else suffer."
The son of a Gary, Ind., steel mill worker, he planned to attend college and study literature. But in 1972 he was busted at a party where marijuana was being smoked, and faced five years prison time.
"Indiana doesn't screw around," he said, his mild eyes lit by humor. Today, as most days, he was wearing a shapeless, ribbed sweater over his medium-sized, round-shouldered torso, jeans that had lost their shape, and a baseball cap to keep his bald spot warm.
Chance's father persuaded a justice of the peace to expunge his arrest, if his son -- his name then was Kenneth, Chance being a nom de plume he took in San Francisco -- agreed to serve in the armed forces. The war was raging in Vietnam. On the other hand, says Martin, he had been gang-raped in jail.
He served as an avionics technician, and never saw combat. Nonetheless, his military service "kind of devalued my life" by depriving him of a sense of purpose or control of his own destiny.
After his discharge there were jobs, and marriages -- three of them -- and a daughter with whom he no longer is in contact. By the time of his last divorce -- the one that precipitated his plan to kill himself -- a lot of bridges were in smoldering ruins.
Asked if his parents are alive, he answered: "I don't know."
A moment later he added: "I made some bad decisions. I have a lot of regret. Sometimes I feel like what I'm doing now is squaring the ledger."
For about five years he's been putting out the Street Sheet, which has been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989. It is unique among similar papers around the country in that it is mostly written, edited and distributed by people who are, or were, homeless.
"We never purported to be true journalism," says Lydia Ely, its first editor. "A lot of muckraking, a lot of exposés." Also, poems and editorial cartoons. "We always wanted people to be political as well as personal. Provocative."
The Street Sheet's approach to homelessness, said Martin, is multi- faceted. For one thing, it seeks to persuade that the cure for homelessness begins with social justice, not social control.
"Care not Cash is a page out of social control," Martin said about Mayor Gavin Newsom's controversial but popular plan to provide housing for homeless people while significantly reducing their cash payments.
"The people who paid for the Care not Cash campaign -- the hotel council, the building owners, the restaurant association -- have a very understandable dilemma," Martin continued. "The proximity of homeless people affects their ability to make money. "When they see a homeless person, that person is the problem.
"I'm a homeless advocate. When I see a homeless person I understand the problem is a lack of housing, a lack of accessible health care, a lack of a living-wage job and educational opportunities."
For another thing, Street Sheet -- which prints about 36,000 copies a month and is distributed mainly downtown for a suggested price of a dollar -- helps to support the people selling it.
"It's one of the last low-threshold income opportunities homeless people can avail themselves of," said Martin. "I've got 400 vendors. If you work hard, and are good at it, you can make $30 or $40 a day. Legally."
His reasonable and reasoned approach and his good humor help make Street Sheet distinctive. When the mayor gave his first annual homeless address in December, Martin's analysis ran two full pages. It was illustrated with a photo of Newsom and the caption: "Anyone the Christian Right hates so much can't be all bad."
But there aren't a lot of laughs to be found around homelessness, as Martin knows. He is, himself, presently without a home, crashing with various friends. From June through January his full-time-plus job was paying half- wages as the Coalition struggled with diminished financing. He was pulling down $14,000. "About enough to ensure I stayed homeless," he said. "It's getting difficult." (In late January came word that he would go back on full salary, $23,000, enough to rent a room again.)
He also serves without pay on the board of Media Alliance, and was appointed by Supervisor Chris Daly to the city's mental health board.
"You know," Martin said, preparing to leave the coffee shop, "there's always been people with drinking problems, with mental health issues. They weren't homeless when I was a kid. Now they're very much under attack. And the rhetoric of 'social responsibility' is just an alibi our politicians give for evading their social responsibility."
His most powerful writing combines his ability to turn a neat thought with his personal understanding of what homelessness feels like.
"It's always unconscious. I know I'm hitting the mark when tears begin hitting the keyboard. People don't understand how much homelessness hurts." Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he removed his glasses and wiped the tears with a paper napkin. "I can't tell you what a blow to someone's self- confidence and dignity it is to be homeless."
By the time Martin arrived in San Francisco from Chicago it was 1992 -- he got sidetracked for a few years in Los Angeles, where he developed a hard- drug dependency, and found his way into the mental health system.
His first home here was Baker Street House, a residence for the mentally ill. "I don't care if people know I've been diagnosed as mentally ill," he said. "The tragedy is that only one in 10 who are diagnosed will ever return to the workforce. To give somebody hope you've got to give them meaningful social engagement. Not a chore, not cleaning the bathroom. When you're actually helping shape your future, when you see your work valued."
That was what he found at the Coalition on Homelessness. He credits its founder and his mentor, Paul Boden, for helping save his life by teaching him the problem wasn't a lack of charity, it was a lack of justice. Boden also insisted Martin stop using hard drugs or else hit the road.
"Chance is a great writer," says Boden. "He puts his demons out there for everyone to see. That's a risk. Whatever the Coalition was to him, he was strong enough to keep coming back, working hard, answering phones, cleaning bathrooms because he saw they needed cleaning.
"But 'saved his life?' I hear that rap from many people. It's not true. The Coalition wasn't here for him. The Coalition was here. He found it. He saved his own life."
And the meaning he's found, Martin said, is inexhaustible. "It's a big responsibility when you're perceived as a top gun," he said, "even only among homeless advocates. It would waste so much work we've done if I did something stupid. I got a lot of work to do before I'm done."
The first time he was allowed to leave Baker Street House unescorted, he recalled, he walked up and over Pacific Heights, and all the way to the Marina. He could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance but had no desire to go there.
Instead, he was overcome with conviction.
"I was waiting all my life to live here. A lot of people come here for a lot of reasons. But I really do believe some of us are called here." He laughed his characteristic guffaw, and drew on his cigarette. "And I don't want to get too religious and metaphysical beyond that."
E-mail Mike Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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