man falling down from a hole of light, surreal concept
man falling down from a hole of light, surreal concept
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

The Lowest Depths


Back to California.

Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, first staged in 1902, focuses on run-down people living in a flophouse: Vaska the thief, Nastya the prostitute, Luka the tramp, and Kvashnya the meat-pie seller, along with a downwardly-mobile baron, a suicidal actor, and others equally miserable.

But in the play, at least temporarily, they are alive and conscious. If fentanyl had hit Russia then, even famed Moscow Arts Theater director Konstantin Stanislavski would have been stymied in creating some dramatic action: Users of the synthetic opioid are often inactive, with stiff limbs. Gorky portrayed lower depths, but fentanyl drops users in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district into the lowest depths, close to death.

I’ve walked many crime-ridden areas by day, but did not want to do the fifty blocks of San Francisco’s Tenderloin’s at night, which is prime time for drug sales. I didn’t know the terrain, and there were too many knives and guns: tempers sometimes flare. Still, during the day what I saw backed up what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight saw during longer periods of time.

We both saw lines of tents on sidewalks and people smoking fentanyl off tinfoil. We saw trash, food scraps, and feces. But Knight brilliantly personalized the horror by following for two and a half years the misery of Laurie Steves, who lost her 25-year-old son, Zachary, to an overdose, and then moved to San Francisco early in 2021 to try to save her addicted daughter, 35-year-old Jessica.

Laurie’s three-month effort failed. Jessica didn’t want help, officials could not or would not help, and Laurie headed home to Seattle. She came again in November 2021 and failed again. In April 2022 Jessica’s boyfriend died of an overdose. Columnist Knight recorded Jessica’s misery: “I just keep waiting for him to ride up on his scooter. I turn, thinking it’s him, and it’s not.”

Knight also kept in touch with Laurie, who “thought constantly of her daughter….’Just showering or brushing my teeth, I think, How long has it been since she did this? When I fix food I know she would like, I think, I wish I could bring her a plate of this.’” Adam Metnick, a sandwich shop owner who tried to help Jessica, got her to call home occasionally, but nothing changed.

Laurie came to San Francisco again in January 2023. San Francisco Mayor London Breed had declared a “state of emergency” in the Tenderloin, but Laurie said, “I’m not seeing the compassion in action. I’m not seeing the millions of dollars they have for homelessness services. I’m disgusted by what I see in San Francisco.”

Laurie found Jessica. Knight recorded their dialogue. Laurie: “We need to get you in a program. Things could be good.” Jess: “No.” Laurie: “You know you’re going to die out here?” Jessica: “So? I’m going to die one day anyway.” Laurie: “You could be warm at night. You could be dry. You could have a home and have a job and have a life.” Jessica: “You can’t make me want it to happen.” Jessica walked away, telling her mom to leave her alone.

The federal and local governments define Jessica as “homeless” and see their “Harm Reduction” job as putting her in a room somewhere and giving her all the equipment she needs to keep using drugs. Shop owner Melnick, who has taken pity on Jessica, says her “homelessness isn’t the main issue. It’s her fentanyl addiction.” He hopes for a crackdown on dealers and more treatment for users: “I don’t know how you can ask somebody if they want services when they’re smoking fentanyl. Really, she’s being eaten alive by fentanyl. The city is very good at hurting people.”

This year Knight on April 10 witnessed the next part of Jessica’s story: “She’d been in the hospital about a week after suffering a seizure, falling and fracturing bones in the right side of her face. She didn’t remember where she fell, or why, but she was optimistic. Cheerful, even.” Jessica said, “I feel more physically comfortable, more confident. I’m going to try not to use anything except cigarettes.’

Knight wrote, “She struck this hopeful note six weeks before San Francisco launched its latest offensive against the drug crisis that has killed more than 2,350 people in the past 3 1⁄2 years and turned streets in the Tenderloin and other neighborhoods into tableaus of misery. Central to the city’s challenge is successfully intervening in the lives of people like Jessica. But what happens to her once she is released from the hospital raises questions that San Francisco has never come close to answering.“ (to be continued)

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.