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‘His Name Is Albert’: Lessons from a Polar Vortex ( 3 of 3)

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What do we learn from a year-long intervention on behalf of an unhoused neighbor who lost limbs to Winter Storm Uri? That it takes dozens of interveners to make up for San Antonio’s broken safety net and lack of climate preparation.

Part Three: The Longest Night of the Year

Skip to Part One: Death By Climate Change

Skip to Part Two: The Murphy Method, Or: Mutual Aid Gets the Goods

Marisol Cortez

You’re late.

The front desk nurse scowled at us behind her plastic partition, summoning the security guard to go through the items we’d brought for Albert. Two button-down shirts in a paper bag, a hardback Bible, a softcover book—a Western or something. The guard flipped through the pages of each book like a card dealer, making sure we hadn’t stashed anything dangerous there. No phones, no jackets, no food, just ID and car keys tucked safely into pockets.

See how many shirts he has first, muttered the guard sorta sideways to the nurse, and if he has three already just keep these. Hardback Bible we couldn’t take up, the corners deemed too dangerous.

Anyway, we already have Bibles here, the guard sniffed.

It was a balmy mid-December evening when I met up with Dee Dennis, a volunteer medic with Yanawana Herbolarios, outside the ER entrance to the Southside’s sole hospital. Albert had been there two weeks already, the hospital agreeing to extend an original 72-hour psychiatric hold as we scrambled to secure the county guardianship that would ensure he wasn’t returned to the streets on discharge.

I’d tried to visit a couple days before on my own, breezing into the main entrance of the hospital with a bag of Bill Millers and sweet tea in hand—the treats I’d tried to deliver the day SAPD shuttled Albert to the hospital, suicidal and physically debilitated after a grueling ten months on the streets post-Uri. But as I quickly learned, visiting protocol for the psych ward was far more complex and restrictive than for regular hospital stays, a two-hour window just three days a week for a maximum of 30 minutes. I would need to make an appointment, said the nurse at the other end of the number provided by the hospital’s front desk. Did I have the code? I didn’t.

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Luckily Yanawana Herbolarios had it. A nurse with expressive black eyes above her mask and braided Leia buns on either side of her head, Dennis had managed to finagle an appointment for the two of us. Even so, the front desk nurse had scolded us when we arrived just a few minutes past our appointed time. She dialed up to the ward anyway, and soon another, more genial nurse arrived to guide us through the hospital’s labyrinthine hallways and up two floors to the psych ward. Reflections, announced a sign just outside. Nice.

Once inside the ward, the nurse unlocked a strangely empty activity room where four or five wooden tables sat encircled by perfectly smooth plastic chairs without slats or edges or corners. Plastic-paned windows lined the wall; at one end was a metal sink seemingly without faucets.

Must be because of COVID, Dennis said, meaning the emptiness of the room.

I think it’s because it’s the psych ward, I said. I’d been in the psych ward before, once voluntarily as an adult following a episode of manic-depression, and once involuntarily, like Albert, as a suicidal teenager. I recognized that lack of protuberances, all the rough sharp edges of the world filed down for your own safety. Neither of the wards I’d been on had a cool name like Reflections, though. As the nurse settled in behind us, I realized it would be a chaperoned visit—of course, I remembered that too.

And then Albert himself wheeled in, clean and calm in a green hospital gown. We were delighted to see how good he looked. Though still thin, he was no longer emaciated, and the arm with recurrent shooters’ wounds had healed enough that he’d regained some of its mobility, he said. He’d also been using the bathroom by himself. They said I’d be throwing up and stuff, diarrhea, but I’m not, he said proudly. A nod to the detox complications that had lost him his space at SAMM’s hotel shelter (see Part Two: ‘The Murphy Method’).


HOW DID YOU FARE IN THE WINTER STORM?

WHO IS TO BLAME?

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

Fill out Deceleration‘s survey before we submit to San Antonio City leaders next month: SURVEY: How Did San Antonio’s Winter Storm-Related Utility Outages Impact You? | ENCUESTA: ¿Cómo le afectaron los cortes de servicios públicos relacionados con la tormenta invernal de San Antonio?


In the quiet of the hospital’s activity room, away from the noise of the highway, we finally had a chance to hear some of his story directly. Two months later, after his discharge to a small assisted living home, we were able to hear more. Raised by his grandmother, Albert said he grew up on the Westside and attended Lanier High School, where he played football. Then a drunk driver killed his girlfriend in a wreck and “I blew everything down,” he said. He’d dropped out and started using, just weed at first but eventually heroin. “Made my problems go away pretty quick,” he said. He used off and on for years, living with his grandmother, but didn’t go unhoused until she passed. Eventually he’d moved in with his brother, but then he’d passed too. Altogether he’d been on the streets 15 years.

In the days before Winter Storm Uri hit, Albert’s buddy Jake had warned him about the pending freeze, inviting him to bunk indoors with someone he knew. Albert had said no, knowing it was a dope house. “I don’t wanna be there with my luck and get popped,” he said. Instead he’d elected to camp out in a tent with multiple blankets. But not long after, his leg started feeling “weird. Like when I walked, I couldn’t feel nothing.” He instructed Jake to go fetch him a gram of heroin for the pain, finding it strange that it knocked him out—usually a gram didn’t do that. He woke up surrounded by fire department and SAPD personnel checking out his leg. “The big toe,” he remembered, “was cut in half. Even the fire department got freaked out.”

Albert Garcia and Dee Dennis, a Yanawana Herbolarios medic. Image: Marisol Cortez

He hadn’t known what gangrene looked like; from the name, he assumed it would be green—but “it was all black! And I [had] it on the bottom of my feet. The skin came—whhhhssssh!—off by itself.”

Albert was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center, where the doctors told him they’d need to amputate his leg and part of his foot. The news terrified him, as he’d known a friend from the streets who died from the shock of amputation. But before he went under the doctors reassured him: “I know you can make it–you’re strong.” And when he woke up and saw his amputated legs for the first time, they repeated it. “They said, ‘I give you a lot of credit, Albert. You’re a strong guy. Because you thought you wouldn’t have survived.’”

He would stay at BAMC four months before they discharged him to Haven for Hope, which he quickly left, wary from prior experiences with theft in their outdoor courtyard. With money the hospital therapists had given him, he’d caught the bus back to his Nogalitos Street beat and soon caught up with his old friend Jake. Months later, they left the streets together for the downtown hotel shelter—that had been one of Albert’s conditions for going, that they be taken in together—but when Jake got housed after Albert got the boot, it created a rift between them that deepened to the point of combustion the day Albert was hospitalized.

On that day Jake, by then housed nearby, had walked past an already dopesick Albert and rubbed salt in the wound by making fun of him—“because he got an apartment and I’m there,” Albert said. It had enraged him. He picked up a heavy object, threatening to throw it at Jake. He grabbed a dog and threw it instead, the black puppy I’d later seen limping around Albert’s camp amid the melee of that day. He’d wanted to pick up his wheelchair and throw it too.

When Turvin arrived, he told her he was planning to jump off the overpass into traffic when she left. And when the police arrived, he’d thrown the finger at everyone—Turvin, Groven, even the cops who had been so friendly to him, even the nurses and doctors at the hospital.

But something had come over him that day, he said, something had burned inside his chest. Later someone at the hospital had observed that even his eyes were red, like fire.

He kept coming back to that day in his conversation with us, clearly bothered that he’d cursed Groven and Turvin. “I feel shame about that,” he said.

Don’t worry about it, we reassured him again and again. They didn’t take it bad at all. They knew you didn’t mean it.

Months later, his soreness at feeling abandoned by Jake was still evident—but so was their closeness, betrayed in his snarky sense of humor about the incident. When he mentioned someone in the hospital whose wife had left him, I asked, incredulous, “Jake has a wife?” Thinking he was still talking about Jake.

“Jake doesn’t have a wife,” Albert scoffed. “He has me!”

LOL Albert. But there was something important I’d wanted to ask, a reason I’d wanted to visit face to face: Could I write about some of what he’d been through since the winter storm? Could I share his story with the community?

I’d been nervous about asking, but Albert seemed unfazed. Sure, he said, share my story.

Outside the hospital, in the two weeks before Christmas of 2021, two housing justice activists—Molly Wright, who has experienced chronic homelessness, and United Farm Workers veterana Rebecca Flores—set up a daily fast outside City Hall for the rights of the unhoused. Wright had started 2021 with a 24-day hunger strike, demanding that the City end encampment sweeps and create a safe parking lot program for those living in their vehicles, among other changes. For health reasons, her end-of-year fast was more Ramadan than Chávez, observed during the day and broken at night beginning on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and ending Christmas Eve.

It was some old-school liberation theology shit: One day when they moved their protest to Main Plaza, the priests at San Fernando Cathedral called the cops on them for leafleting on church grounds, they said—Wright and Flores had been passing out information to parishioners on the City’s Emergency Housing Assistance program. A few days later, the City of San Antonio dispatched the police against Flores and housing justice organizer Maureen Lydon Galindo, this time for praying the Rosary through a bullhorn.

Rebecca Flores outside San Fernando Cathedral in downtown San Antonio. Original via Kamala Platt.

Wright and Flores’s December fast was only the culmination of a year of intensified organizing around houselessness in San Antonio. Mutual aid efforts, already flourishing during the COVID-19 pandemic and after Uri, provided direct support to residents of downtown encampments that had grown in size during the pandemic, as well as the energy behind organized resistance to their abatement by the City in early February.

Housing justice activists equally mobilized in support of renters threatened with houselessness following the end of pandemic moratoria on eviction and utility disconnection, organizing frequent fundraisers to rehouse evicted renters or access storage facilities as people lost their homes. In August, multiple community groups organized a tent drive and pitched a “[Mayor] Nirenberg tent city” outside City Hall, as Wright described it; a month later, she spearheaded San Antonio’s First Annual March for the Houseless.

Intensified organizing around houselessness also pushed the City in experimental directions, at least temporarily. In a partnership with Yanawana Herbolarios and the City’s newly formed homeless street outreach team, then-District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño launched an effort to bring the Herbolarios’s street clinic to his field office northwest of downtown, using it as a hub for services.

Unfortunately, this effort was promptly disbanded by Treviño’s successor Mario Bravo, whose campaign rode to victory on a surge of anti-homeless backlash within the neighborhoods surrounding the field office.

Partly in response to that incident, the City in July announced that it had leased a downtown Days Inn that would be operated by SAMMinistries as a low-barrier hotel shelter.

One of Wright’s key demands had been for the City to convert hotels into emergency shelters—and yet Albert’s expulsion from SAMM in October 2021 revealed a pragmatic flaw in their conceptual logic of “low-barrier.” Though intended to house people regardless of substance use, the SAMM hotel also lacked the services required to keep those with drug-related medical needs housed. Closer in design to what Albert needed was Catholic Worker House’s Towne Twin Village project, a no-barrier community of tiny homes on the far Eastside that broke ground in 2021. When complete, it will provide housing and medical services for chronically unhoused people over age 50.

But that option hadn’t materialized yet in December 2021, when Albert was transported by police van from his camp in our neighborhood to the psych ward of a Southside hospital. In its absence, the care he needed—known in the field of houselessness services as medical respite—came in the form of an involuntary hold that eventually extended to nearly two months as we scrambled to scale the final bureaucratic hurdles necessary to keep Albert from being discharged back to the streets. It was by no means ideal—but without any other emergency housing option in San Antonio for someone like Albert, it ended up saving his life.

Ultimately it was the psych ward that came through for him, the only institution able to legally recognize his situation of neglect as life-threatening. Visiting Albert after he’d been there two weeks, Groven had sent back an ecstatic text: Albert looked healthy and happy.

Not long after Dennis and I visited Albert, I was shocked to receive a call one afternoon from Adult Protective Services. I’d finally filed an open records request, wanting to confirm the number of reports filed on Albert’s behalf, why cases had been closed, and whether APS had sent a medical doctor to examine Albert during any of its investigations.

As anticipated, Mary Walker, APS media specialist for San Antonio, had sent me back a terse, one-line response: “APS records are confidential.”

But APS program manager Delrick Washington wasn’t calling to give me information; he was calling to get info about Albert’s case, after Walker had forwarded him my records request. He was calling to make sure APS had done everything it was supposed to do, he said, and to offer assistance. Quickly, I filled him in on Albert’s whereabouts and urged him to contact Groven and Turvin as those most familiar with the status of his medical and legal situation.

But Washington didn’t call, and the days crept by without follow-through from APS or word on nursing homes or guardianship. We were fast closing in on the holiday shutdown when Groven texted us the Saturday before Solstice: Albert was due to be released Monday. He’d been in the hospital 18 days and they couldn’t keep him any longer. Unfortunately, neither nursing home nor guardianship had come together in time, despite repeated calls and emails to the judge, his staff attorneys, and Albert’s ad litem representative to the courts. And now, if we weren’t able to figure something out by Monday, Albert would be sleeping on the streets again with night temperatures down in the 40s.

I put my activist hat on, called APS’s Washington at the number he gave me, left a message, followed up with an email to make sure there was a record of my call. Groven emailed his supervisor at the City’s Department of Human Services, the Bexar County Guardianship Program, the D5 Councilwoman’s office. Maybe SAMM would take Albert back, now that he could use the bathroom independently. Maybe Haven for Hope, though he’d have to stay in the courtyard again. Maybe a faith-based shelter in town that required people to fundraise in the streets for a year in exchange for housing and meals. “I don’t generally support the model they use, but I’m desperate,” wrote Groven.

One thing was for certain: If APS did not come through this time, it was time to gather up San Antonio’s rowdiest activists for a protest outside their headquarters, with TV news CC’ed. I contacted Wright and Flores mid-fast to give them a heads up.

When Monday morning hit, Groven called Washington three times to no answer. By that point I wasn’t surprised; as Wright had already warned me, “You know none of them will be working this week, right?” Luckily District 5 had more pull.

In a matter of hours, Councilwoman Teri Castillo and her staff pressed the city’s Department of Human Services to twist the arm of APS until they finally responded. Seven months after filing our first report about Albert, APS finally agreed to locate him a hotel and caregiver until we found more permanent housing.

SAMMinistries, we learned in the process, would not take Albert back.

D5 also finally reached someone at Bexar County who explained what the holdup was with guardianship, one final chicken-and-egg Catch-22. To move forward, Albert’s ad litem needed to know we had a nursing home lined up–but most nursing homes regarded him as a flight risk and would only take him with guardianship in place. More importantly, like APS, the judge was on vacation—but, per D5, was willing to pull some strings.

That afternoon Groven texted the news:

“Through a series of mass interventions,” he said, Albert would be able to stay in the hospital until guardianship came through.

Three days later, on December 23, Judge Oscar Kazen would grant temporary guardianship for 60 days, after which the court would decide either to end it, extend it, or make the arrangement permanent.

From there it would still take another month to sort through the fresh tangle of financial and logistical complications involved in getting Albert out of the hospital—phone bombing APS, hunting for nursing homes that would take him, writing letters of support, contacting our local congressman’s office for help sorting out Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)—and into an assisted living facility. And even this is still a temporary arrangement. But for the time being, we had done it. It only took a year and 28 people (by my count), working both inside and outside every governmental jurisdiction (city, county, state, federal) and across multiple institutional locations, to keep one unhoused man, disabled by Winter Storm Uri, from being returned to the streets to die the following winter.

That same week of the judge’s ruling was also Winter Solstice, and on the evening of December 21, I found myself at a downtown park for San Antonio’s 15th Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial. Since 1991, communities have organized a national day of commemoration on the Winter Solstice for those who died on the streets. San Antonio has observed it since 2006, and for the past several years it has been organized by SAMMinistries.

At the park, a crowd of a couple hundred gathered around its central pagoda, a mix of service providers in uniform T-shirts, unhoused downtown folks there to remember their comrades, even a couple bearded bagpipe players in full-kilted regalia. Standing before a podium placed inside a gazebo at the center of the park, SAMM CEO Nikisha Baker acknowledged the day as symbolic.

The Winter Solstice is “the coldest and darkest time for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” she said, “a time when their living conditions and exposure to the elements make them especially susceptible to premature death.”

It wasn’t my first Solstice event of the day. That morning, I’d gone to Brackenridge Park for a gathering on the banks of the San Antonio River. There, Indigenous folks from the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians and Kapulli Ayolopaktzin led the small group assembled in a call-and-response dance. Following the movements of danzante Rosie Torres, we lifted our hands and stretched our arms one direction and then another, responding to the movement of branches and wind.

We were there to express gratitude for a graceful line of ancient trees, proposed for removal, which overhang the river wall outside the San Antonio Zoo. Before we closed out our gathering, the Tehuan Band chairman invited all the women (people who identify with feminine energy, Rosie nudged him gently) to encircle one grandfather cypress, offering thanks and taking rest. I’d lain my forehead in one of its recesses, letting the centuries carry away the stress and pain of the past year’s unrelenting crises—COVID, close friends sick or grieving, “off-the-charts” weather disasters, my own private internal churn.

A prayer for our feverish earth in the morning, and in the evening a prayer for those who passed away on her streets. In 2021, the year of “Snowvid,” 71 people in San Antonio died unhoused. As a woman at the podium read off each person’s name and age, another lit one white vela in a long row of many lining the pagoda’s railings. Most of the dead were men in their 50s and 60s, I noticed. Like Albert.

A woman lights a candle at San Antonio’s 15th Annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial. Image: Marisol Cortez

He could have easily been one of those names. That he is not is testament to the power of mutual aid networks that spontaneously arise in times of disaster. It’s a testament to the vital importance of an inside/outside political strategy, which multiplies the institutional access of those in official positions by the unencumbered tenacity of outside agitators.

There were some things only a city councilwoman’s office could do–call up the bosses at DHS and push them to push the bosses at APS, for starters. But there were some things only Turvin or Wright or I could do and say as neighbors, activists, constituents, community—write an email to everyone accountable and copy the media, call a protest in the face of bureaucratic inaction, submit an open records request, write a 10,000-word essay. And some things were only possible because we had the right people in public office or public agencies, people with histories of pushing from the outside, people not only willing to push against structural inertia but to welcome activist involvement and tactics without fear or defensiveness (or, worse, stonewalling and bureaucratic gaslighting). I have to say it was not only refreshing but fucking effective as well. Let’s see that it stays that way.

But let’s also not pat ourselves on the back too hard. That so many were required to protect just one life is also a testament to the massive failure of the systems set up to protect the many.

It’s a testament to the distortions and cruelty of an understanding of autonomy bequeathed by austerity, which holds the right of the unhoused to die on the streets more dear than their right to housing, health, and even survival–because ensuring that right would mean (as detailed more fully in Part Two of this series) real investment in things like medical respite care; harm reduction practices like needle exchange programs and supervised injection sites; public and affordable housing; climate action that urgently centers the most vulnerable.

Finally, that Albert is not on 2021’s list of names is also a testament to his own ganas. I’ve OD’ed seven times, he told us in the psych ward. I’ve been hit by a car–didn’t even realize it had happened until I woke up in the hospital. Then there was the winter storm, the amputations, the heat exhaustion and shooter’s wounds, and the eventual, inevitable crash into suicidal despair.

But even that had been a kind of agency. As he relayed afterwards to Dennis and me, the day Jake made fun of him for still being unhoused, Albert had decided he needed to do something drastic to get off the streets. “I said, well Jake, this will be the last time you gonna see me. I’m going to do something that, I’m going to get Maria or Daniel’s attention to put me into the hospital.” That was when he’d told Maria: when she left, he was going to throw himself into the traffic speeding by his camp.

Whether a conscious plan or a mental breakdown—likely both—it had worked to finally get him off the streets. “Next thing you know,” Albert said, “Maria calls Daniel, Daniel came, and then he called the police—and then, Daniel tricked me! Cuz I asked, ‘Who are we waiting for?’ ‘Oh, the ambulance.’ And next thing I saw a big ol’ SAPD–like, a bus? I said, goddamn!” He laughed, remembering.

As he detailed just how much he’d survived, I realized that therein lay Albert’s own power. In his toughness, the tenacity with which he clung to life, the resilience via which he recovered, just as the doctors back at BAMC had said. He’d had a near death experience then, when they were taking his leg. “It was so weird,” he said. “When they were cutting my leg off, I saw my little brother who passed away when he was 27. He gave me a smile, and then far away I was seeing my mom and my older brother.

“And then I was seeing someone flying, and it was my grandpa! And I remember him touching my arm right here so he could take me with him, but my brother told me no.”

“Not your time,” said Dennis.

“And then I came back,” agreed Albert.

There are climate lessons there for us too, not only in how to survive and care for each other, but also in how to fight and insist in the face of institutional inertia. As Turvin repeatedly tells her medics: There’s always a solution!

For as District 5 outreach worker Nikketa Burges perceptively pointed out, harm reduction, especially as an expression of more systemic investments in community wellness, is a powerful way of thinking about the public health challenges of climate as much as opioids, with many overlapping policy demands. One of the most important climate change mitigation strategies for the unhoused, for instance, is to lower barriers to housing for all by moving away from approaches that criminalize and stigmatize substance use.

“If we don’t welcome these folks into our community and stop ostracizing them,” said Burges, “they’re always going to be out in the hot and cold weather.” And just as we do with climate disruption, harm reduction means assuming “drugs are gonna be something we’re going to deal with, and then move from there”—because, she said, “it’s only going to get worse.”

But, she continued, substance use as self-medication diminishes when we address the root, systemic causes of harm–the impoverishment of austerity, the necropolitics of white supremacy. That means investment in “things like free public transportation, help with more childcare, working on that heat island [issue], where we don’t have enough shade here on the Westside so the heat is more extreme.”

Just as climate mitigation for the unhoused requires harm reduction, harm reduction in this deeper, more systemic sense will require climate action.

Let me end with a prayer, then: May these words do that work justice, in this colder and hotter and more precarious, precious world we all now inhabit.

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