From Near Death and Homeless to City Hall
By Joel P. Engardio
When I was looking to hire a coordinator for my 2012 supervisor campaign, one resume stood out for all the wrong reasons: an entry-level job that lasted nine months followed by years of unexplained holes.
It even dared to list Supervisor Scott Wiener as a reference -- one of San Francisco’s most well known and hardest-working politicians.
Yet Wiener called to vouch for the applicant: an HIV-positive, formerly homeless and recovering meth addict. He had interned in Wiener’s City Hall office.
I gave Gary McCoy the job and quickly learned that compassionate, loyal and ethical people could exist in politics.
McCoy, 37, also reminded me that well-coordinated social services and effective public policy are important in dealing with all the issues he faced. The human spirit can survive some very dark places when there is a path to realize its full potential.
Before interning for Wiener, McCoy slept above an elevator shaft at the UCSF Parnassus campus. His grandmother sent him money but he spent it on meth, too high to care about the AIDS-related Kaposi Sarcoma lesions on his body.
“I just thought about my friend from back home telling me that San Francisco is where gay men came to die,” said McCoy, who left a religiously conservative town in Virginia to follow a boyfriend to San Francisco and became adrift when the relationship ended. “I didn’t go home because there was too much shame in contracting HIV. I thought I had completely failed at life. I didn’t really talk to my family for years.”
The death of a close friend and fellow addict made McCoy want to avoid the same fate. So he began to take medication at San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS clinic, ate meals at Glide Memorial Church, found shelter at AIDS Housing Alliance and got sober with Baker Places Residential Treatment and the Castro Country Club’s 12-step programs.
Many organizations contributed to McCoy’s recovery but he had to find them on his own. It was hit and miss as McCoy encountered incompetent taxpayer-funded non-profits.
“I always wondered how they stayed open. Then I found out programs that work and programs that don’t work both get city funding,” said McCoy, who has been a legislative aide for Wiener and Supervisors London Breed and Julie Christensen. “Just throwing a ton of money at social services is not the answer. There needs to be better coordination and oversight. The mayor’s homeless navigation center is a good start. I wish it had been there for me.”
Wiener’s critics paint him as a heartless “right wing” moderate who criminalizes the homeless. But Wiener has actually saved lives every year by obtaining funds for measurable housing and meal programs for homeless youth. He just refuses to enable anti-social behavior on the streets with anything-goes policies.
McCoy said he embraces moderate views -- like compelling the mentally ill to get treatment and prohibiting sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks -- because those common sense policies work.
“If I was at the point of being OK with defecating on the street, then conservatorship would be good for me,” McCoy said. “When we let people sleep in the doorway, they can get too comfy there, drink more and not seek the help they need to change their lives. I was complacent for many years.”
McCoy said housing policy also makes him a moderate – though he and Wiener act as true progressives for championing positive change.
“The people who call themselves progressives are always fighting against more housing. It’s so contradictory – let’s not build any new housing and then let the homeless sleep on the street,” said McCoy, who doesn’t want lack of market-rate supply to turn single-room units for homeless people into expensive tech dorms.
Supervisor Christensen’s recent defeat means McCoy is looking for work again. This time his resume will stand out for all the right reasons.
“Having nothing before has made me grateful for what I have now,” said McCoy, who rents a Castro apartment with his husband Kory Powell-McCoy, a restaurant server. They met at 12-step and Wiener officiated their wedding earlier this year, which McCoy’s mother celebrated in San Francisco.
“There isn’t very much these days that can get me down.”