Friday, April 27, 2007

Housing might keep families together

Jill May's saga: After growing up in a family broken by drugs and homelessness, three young adults who built solid lives honor a woman they hardly knew -- their mother
Knight, Heather. San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2007, pg. A1.

Lakesha Houston and her two brothers, Ricky and Robert Smith, sat in the front row of the Lewis-Ribbs Mortuary in Bayview-Hunters Point to say goodbye to a woman they had long ago ceased to know.

They had planned the mid-March memorial service for Jill May, a 49-year-old homeless woman who was reed-thin, wrinkled, toothless and addicted to heroin and crack. She was a former prostitute who remained seduced by life on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin, despite the city's well-publicized efforts to help her.

None of three young adults at the service were surprised by her death, but they were devastated by its gruesome nature. On Jan. 12, two women allegedly kidnapped May off the street, took her to Candlestick Point, doused her with gasoline and burned her alive -- a slaying that made national news for its utter depravity.

To San Francisco residents, homeless people like May -- in tattered clothes, sleeping on cardboard -- are a common sight around the city. But to Lakesha, Ricky and Robert, this woman was not a tragic icon of homelessness, or a sensational news story.

She was Mom.

Jill May grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. She said her mother was a drunk who died of alcohol poisoning when May was 12. She said her father raped and impregnated her when she was 16. She suffered a miscarriage and ran away from home, winding up in the Bay Area in 1976 and working as a prostitute.

May told her story to The Chronicle in 2004 as part of its coverage of Mayor Gavin Newsom's efforts to end chronic homelessness.

After coming to San Francisco, May soon met Smith, a pimp known as "Slick Rick" who drove an orange Corvette and had a stable of 24 prostitutes. May became his most successful prostitute, attracting business from men of all income levels and professions with her magazine-worthy good looks. Everybody called her "Legs."

The couple had three children together. The first was Lakesha.

The family moved frequently, Lakesha said. Her mother always told her she worked in a bar, but at age 12, Lakesha learned from her cousin what her mom really did for a living.

"I cried and asked my dad if it was true,' " she recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, it's true."

She said her parents smoked pot and crack in front of their kids and gave them wads of cash with which to buy fast food or clothes or, for Lakesha, to get her nails done. At the same time, Lakesha said, her dad was strict and made the kids be inside before the streetlights turned on at dusk.

"It was a normal lifestyle to me -- I didn't know any different," she said.

While Lakesha and Ricky Jr. lived for years with their parents, Robert never did. He was born in his grandmother's garage in Oakland, delivered by his father. Robert was taken to a hospital, which wouldn't release him to his parents. His paternal grandparents adopted him.

Life back at home soon went downhill. When Lakesha was 13, she said, her parents were introduced to heroin and were never the same.

They'd sleep all day and host big parties at night. They kept four or five pit bulls. Lakesha said she got scared when strangers would come to the house to do heroin and crack with her parents, and she slept with a knife under her pillow. Sometimes her parents would leave their Oakland home at 3 a.m. to go to the Tenderloin and keep partying, she said.

"It just became not a home at all. It was literally turning into a crack house," she said.

Despite Ricky Jr. begging her to stay, Lakesha left home at 14 to move in with her best friend's family. Two years later, she was pregnant -- she says she wanted a baby so somebody in her life would love her. She graduated from high school on time and began working in retail stores at 18.
With Lakesha gone and his younger brother, Robert, living with grandparents, Ricky Jr. was left alone with his mother and father. When he was 9, the family was evicted from their Oakland home and moved to the Tenderloin, bouncing around between single room occupancy hotels.

His parents pulled him out of school and insisted he stay inside watching TV until 3 p.m. every day so police wouldn't see a truant child on the streets and arrest them. When schools let out, Ricky Jr. was allowed to go to a local recreation center to play basketball with the other kids.

He'd see his mother standing on the corner, getting into cars with strange men, he said. Even as a 9-year-old, he knew how his mother made money. The kids at the recreation center called his mom a hooker, and he got into fights defending her.

Ricky Jr. said his parents stayed up for days doing drugs and then slept for 20 hours in a row. He had to steal money from his father to buy food and remembers being hungry a lot. But his parents always told him things would change.

"They always told me they were going to get better and everything -- they were selling me a dream," he said. "They always told me they were going to get themselves together and move to a better house and promised me everything a kid could want."

But his dad kept doing drugs, and his mom continued working the streets. Ricky Jr. was often left by himself. One day, when he was 10, Ricky Jr. ran several blocks to the South of Market apartment that his sister was sharing with her then-boyfriend. Lakesha helped him move in with his grandparents and younger brother.

Ricky Jr. had missed third grade, but was enrolled right into fourth grade and managed to do just fine. "I did the opposite of what was expected of me," he said. "Everything that was going on in class, I just picked up easily."

He said the one thing his classmates could do that he couldn't was write cursive, but he eventually caught up in that area, too.

In 2001, the kids' grandparents passed away months apart, and Ricky Jr. and Robert moved in with an uncle. They both earned a B average at Skyline High School in Oakland, where Ricky Jr. played on the basketball team and Robert on the football team.

"We don't want to be like our parents," Robert said. "We have to have our own drive, our own motivation."

His goal, he said, is to become "the opposite of what they were."
In San Francisco, residents see homeless people like Jill May every day and simply pass by. Few would guess how many of them have children.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane, a leading homelessness researcher, said that nationally, 76 percent of homeless women are mothers, and 57 percent of homeless men are fathers.

But the typical story doesn't go like the one depicted in last year's movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," in which Will Smith played a real-life San Francisco homeless man who is also a wonderful father.

Only 15 percent of homeless parents nationally have one or more of their children living with them. The majority live with another relative, and some are placed in foster care.

Not much research has been done on what happens to these children, but Culhane said one fact is clear: "We know that homelessness directly leads to family separations, parent-child separations."

There is a nationwide push to get chronically homeless adults into housing. One benefit is that it often helps these adults reconnect with their children.

"Not necessarily living with them," Culhane said, "but re-establishing a relationship."

Last fall, with the help of the city's Homeless Outreach Team, May finally got into permanent housing. But she still spent her days on Jones Street using drugs.

And she would never see her children again. Or have the slightest idea of what they had done with their lives.

Lakesha, 26, manages two Victoria's Secret stores and owns a home in Oakland with her husband, Thomas Houston, who drives a truck for Coca-Cola. She has a 9-year-old daughter, Kaleah, from a previous relationship.

Ricky Jr., 20, is a sophomore at San Jose State University and plans to major in computer science. He won a scholarship for an essay he wrote about his childhood.

Robert, 19, is a freshman at Chico State University and is majoring in business administration.

Lakesha got the telephone call in January. Her mother was dead. She immediately phoned her brothers.

"I was on campus walking with my friends (when I got the call) and I started crying," Ricky Jr. said. For the first time, he told his college pals about his family background. "They were, like, shocked. That's, like, something you see on the movies or hear about, but you don't ever think it could happen to someone you love."

Lakesha, Robert and Ricky Jr. immediately began planning their mother's service. They needed closure, they said, and couldn't let her die without some sort of formal recognition.

"She's still our mom, and she deserves it, you know?" Ricky Jr. said. "That's our responsibility, being her kids."

"I always assumed I wouldn't see them (her parents) until they passed away, but I always thought it would be due to their lifestyle -- the drugs," Lakesha said. "To know that it happened the way it did ..."

Her voice trailed off.

"I miss her because that was my mother, and I love her," she continued. "I know she didn't deserve to die that way."

Lakesha, Ricky Jr. and Robert have become increasingly close over the past few years.

"We do have people who have the same last name as us, but we know that ultimately, it boils down to the three of us," Lakesha said. "There's just a bond between us that will never be broken."

When Lakesha got married in February, her brothers were there -- in their tuxedoes and boutonnieres -- but her father was nowhere to be found. Soon, that was about to change.

Weeks later, Ricky Smith Sr. ambled into the Bayview mortuary shortly before the memorial service for Jill May. About 15 people showed up.

Ricky Sr. was wearing a gray suit and beige shoes. He headed into the back room, where the rest of the family was praying with a minister.

Upon seeing her father for the first time in 10 years, Lakesha stood up, grasped him tightly and wailed, tears streaming down her face.

For a second, Ricky Sr. didn't recognize his own daughter and said he thought she was one of his sons' girlfriends.

"Lakesha, your hair has gotten so long," Smith said, a big smile spreading across his face. "Last time I saw you, it was short."

He looked at his sons, still sitting down and said, "What up, dawgs?"

They smiled, looking nervous but also happy.

Everyone took their seats for the service. At the altar was a photograph of Jill May, with the long, dirty blonde hair, the pretty eyes and the great cheekbones That's how her three children remembered their mother -- not the bedraggled, scab-covered woman whose photo in The Chronicle reminded them of a public service announcement about the dangers of heroin.

An organist played "Amazing Grace," and a minister talked about how God is with us even when we make mistakes and hurt others in our lives. Grace, he said, "means God will keep us even when we don't want to be kept."

May's three children, clad in black, stood and read a poem that Lakesha had written. It was entitled "Mom."

We will keep you in our hearts 'til we are called home
Where we'll meet and finally have that happy home
The place that we have always wanted
But never really known
The place where we will have our Mother
This is the place we will call home

After the service, Ricky Sr. posed for pictures with his children, and the family chatted outside the mortuary for a while.

"Oh man, I'm really proud of them," said Smith, who lives in a single occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin. "Really, really proud."

They all vowed to keep in touch and then went their separate ways.

Back in 2004, May told The Chronicle that she had big dreams. "Just one day before I die, I'm going to see the Statue of Liberty," she said. "I'm going to get on a Greyhound bus, see the country. Go to school, get a job. I want to do normal things."

Lakesha said she'd like to scatter her mother's ashes in New York to fulfill her dream.

Lakesha has also told prosecutors that she will give an impact statement on how her mother's death affected her when May's alleged killers go to trial.

Mia Sagote and Leslie Siliga have been charged with murder and murder in commission of a kidnapping, which could lead to life in prison without parole. They have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say the killing stemmed from $150 that Ricky Smith Sr. owed the women.

Whoever took her mother's life, Lakesha says, "thought she was some homeless person -- that no one would care, that she would just disappear and no one would notice. I'm so glad they were proven wrong."

About the story
Jill May was first profiled in The Chronicle in December 2004, when the newspaper was examining San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s new outreach effort to move the homeless off the street and into housing and social service programs. For May, the addictions to drugs proved too difficult to leave behind. In January 2007, she made national headlines when she was slain — doused with gasoline and burned alive at Candlestick Point. She was 49.