“My office is well acquainted w/the victim + have been trying for many months to get her support from @SF_DPH”
— Aaron Peskin, five-term member and current president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on Twitter
It was a loophole in San Francisco city code that allowed Aaron Peskin to run for his old District 3 supervisor’s seat after serving the maximum two consecutive terms from 2000 to 2008. Peskin realized there was nothing barring him from running nonconsecutively, so in 2015 he challenged the mayoral appointed incumbent, Julie Christensen. Since the Marina Times covers District 3, my publisher recommended I interview both candidates and run them side-by-side in our election issue. Even though I had criticized Peskin in the past, he graciously agreed to meet with me for coffee on a sunny Friday afternoon in Telegraph Hill.
During our nearly two-hour taped conversation, I asked tough questions — about his reputation for late-night drunken phone calls to other city officials and using his power as a former supervisor to bully his critics and adversaries. I also expressed dismay with the time he worked with his old reporter friend Joe Eskenazi, then with S.F. Weekly, to do a hit piece on me for supporting a Pet Food Express on Lombard Street. Why? Because Peskin was consulting with the small pet shops in the area (the Pet Food Express was voted down, but the small pet shops closed anyway). I expected him to deny all of it, but he didn’t. In fact, he took full responsibility — and he apologized.
“That was the old Aaron Peskin,” he said. “This is Aaron 2.0 — I’ve changed for the better. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
It was a classic “get more bees with honey than vinegar” tale, but he seemed sincere. Then we got down to the brass tacks of running a city that was clearly losing its way. A car parked right in front of us had its windows shattered, leaving what we locals call “San Francisco diamonds” sparkling in the gutter below. Peskin passionately told me what he planned to do to make life in San Francisco better for all — and it made perfect sense.
The two interviews ran side-by-side as my publisher and I planned, and it was clear to me — and to most people who read them — that Peskin was the better choice. I didn’t interject any opinion, and both candidates thanked me separately for “being the only reporter not to misquote them.” That shocked me, but I took it as a compliment.
A lot has happened over the past eight years, but fast forward to Peskin’s final term, and he hasn’t delivered on many of his promises. Not only did he appear drunk in Zoom meetings during the pandemic, but he went back to his old bullying ways (he later apologized — again — and went to rehab). On Jan. 9, when the new more moderate makeup of the board couldn’t come together on reelecting Shamann Walton as president, Peskin threw his hat into the ring and regained the position in which he had served two unanimously elected terms.
That same day, video emerged of a business owner using a garden hose to spray a homeless woman who refused to move while he was washing down the sidewalk in front of Foster-Gwin Art & Antiques in the upscale Jackson Square area. It was disturbing to watch the man, later identified as Collier Gwin, standing casually with his legs crossed as the woman tried to bat the water away.
In no way do I condone the gallery owner’s behavior (Gwin has since been arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery), but there is so much more to the story.
As it turns out, the woman, who goes by Q, was well known around Peskin’s district. Before his arrest, Gwin told several media outlets that he has been trying to get help for the woman, even allowing her to sleep in the doorway of his business to escape the inclement weather. That’s right — for all the outrage over what was an indefensible act, numerous nonprofits that take in millions of dollars and the second most powerful official in the city did nothing to help her. Prior to the viral incident, Q was sleeping in the freezing cold, soaking wet from the recent atmospheric river that bombarded the Bay Area after years of drought. It wasn’t until the video hit social media and the news that Q was taken to the hospital.
Kristie Fairchild, executive director of the homeless services nonprofit North Beach Citizens, told the San Francisco Chronicle that she began interacting with Q at the beginning of the pandemic. Fairchild recalled Q appearing lucid at times and even helping her organization, which is well respected by local residents, with tasks like folding clothes at their resource center.
A number of Marina Times readers also recalled seeing Q in the area, some as far back as 2015, seeking restaurant handouts and sleeping in doorways of various buildings. “Everybody is aware of who she is, and we’ve all been trying to get her the services that she needs,” Fairchild told the Chronicle. “The reality is that she needs conservatorship. … But the burden of proof to create that kind of case can be so arduous.”
That’s an understatement.
Under California state law, San Francisco can now conserve people who are deemed severely mentally ill and who have been taken to an emergency crisis unit — known as a 5150 hold — at least eight times. Fewer than 700 people are currently conserved in San Francisco, for both inpatient and outpatient care, but a walk around the city tells you not enough is being done.
Peskin claims his office “repeatedly tried to help Q,” telling the Chronicle he was “scheduled to speak with Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax to see if Q could stay in the hospital and receive psychiatric treatment.” But he also said his constituents had reached out to him about Q in the past, saying “she’s in misery,” and asking, “can you try to help?”
So why did it take a viral video for Peskin — one of the most powerful politicians in San Francisco — to schedule that meeting with Colfax?
Having frustrated business owners and residents reach out to me for help facilitating communications with Peskin’s office over a variety of issues, I’d say it’s because Q wasn’t high on his to-do list until that viral video put a spotlight on his ineffectiveness.
Which brings us back to Gwin. While his behavior was inexcusable, some people have also said it was understandable, because business owners aren’t equipped to handle San Francisco’s homeless crisis. With more than a billion dollars a year flowing to hundreds of nonprofits that face zero oversight, what can San Franciscans really expect?
This was a cry for help, not only from Q, and others like her, but also from Gwin and fellow business owners who just want city leaders to lead, stop the endless virtue signaling, and do their jobs.
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