American Renaissance

Streetcar Named Sobriety

’The Wagon’ helps drinkers in Mission District.

Alison Soltau, San Francisco Examiner, Jun. 21

Moved by the sight of immigrant and homeless men spending their days drunk on the streets of the Mission District, police have decided to help them get on the wagon — literally.

About six weeks ago, cops introduced “The Wagon,” a van that makes daily rounds in the Mission’s lonely little alleys and grassy neighborhood parks hoping to drive the men from drink.

Along the way, the van’s driver, Officer Luis Ortiz, says he has uncovered a worrying problem.

Ortiz estimates that six or seven out of every 10 people who board the van are male Mexican, El Salvadoran or Guatemalan immigrants with no immigration papers, whose struggles to make it in the United States have driven them to drink.

The Mission police’s new approach serves partly as therapy and partly as a response to a vocal community that complains about quality-of-life issues in the Mission District.

Police detain people under The City’s public-drinking codes and transport them back to the Mission District police station, where they sleep it off for about four hours in a sobriety cell before being released.

With his calm, no-nonsense manner and command of the Spanish language, the Puerto Rican-descended Ortiz sometimes coaxes fragments of sad life stories from the drunk men who end up hunched over the stainless steel benches of The Wagon’s small pen.

“I feel for them. They came here looking for the American Dream and it went south,” Ortiz said.

“A lot come here with the plan of being able to work and support their families back home, and for some of them it just doesn’t work out,” Ortiz said. “Some of their comments to me have been, ‘My wife, she finally left me. She has another man who is making money and working back at home.’”

And that’s when it seems like a good idea to reach for a cold can of Colt 45.

“A guy born in '72 looks like he was born in '52,” Ortiz said. “Their faces just turn down from all the alcohol.”

The shift usually starts at around 6 a.m. The Wagon finds men in spots such as 18th and Mission streets, the 24th Street corridor and Shotwell Street, and police pick up approximately four or five men during each shift, with up to six on the weekends.

At 26th and Treat streets Friday, Mexican-born Florentino “Alejandro” Sanchez, 47, held a brown-bagged 40-ounce bottle of King Cobra malt liquor to go with the can of sardines he was opening with scissors.

Sanchez, who has been on The Wagon once or twice already, says he sells flowers for a job most days but likes drinking and doesn’t really want The City’s help. “A lot of people here have died, but I’m still drinking,” Sanchez said.

On Friday, Sanchez wasn’t drunk, so Ortiz had a quiet word with him and poured out the King Cobra.

Sanchez said the malt liquor was given to him for free by a nearby liquor store, an issue that has cops concerned.

Some of the tiny liquor stores that dot so many Mission District street corners illegally sell to the already drunk men because they fear the men will steal the alcohol if they don’t provide it, Ortiz said.

While no one was destined for The Wagon on Friday afternoon, cops say that when they do take someone in, they give the detainees phone numbers for social services.

But Ortiz said he wants to have the ability to offer more direct links to counseling and health services and make them aware that San Francisco is a sanctuary city for immigrants.

City health officials said Friday that they were unaware of The Wagon and would talk to police about lining up services.

“We definitely will follow up on this,” said Janet Goy, executive director of a group that runs the Mobile Assistance Patrol, a van that picks up inebriated people across The City and refers them to detox facilities.

Renee Saucedo, an organizer for the Hispanic immigrant legal service La Raza Centro Legal, said she didn’t think the Latino immigrant community was experiencing alcoholism at any disproportionate rate. She said the reason the men’s drinking was so visible was because many lived in shelters inaccessable until the evening. If they were jobless that day, they would inevitably wind up on the street.

Saucedo added that she wanted the men to get services and that she preferred they did not go into a holding cell.

Mission locals see The Wagon as a police response to their common refrain that public drunkenness is a major quality-of-life problem in the neighborhood.

“If you allow people to be drunk on the streets, harass people and pee on the streets, it leads to bigger things,” said Ethel Newlin of the 16th Street Community Mini-Taskforce. “The Wagon is a great idea. It keeps people from hurting themselves and from being a public nuisance.”