Reclaiming her life
Sunday, January 09, 2005
- Organization: San Francisco Chronicle
Reclaiming her life
54-year-old Rita Grant fell from a middle-class life to homelessness, heroin and heartache before accepting her family's offer to help clean up
Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Rita Grant has a new life.
A year ago, the former homecoming queen and gymnastics whiz was shivering through foggy nights on San Francisco sidewalks, panhandling streams of traffic and shooting up with dirty heroin needles on a downtown median dubbed Homeless Island for the dozen or so down-and-outers -- like Rita -- who lived there.
Her body was racked by HIV. Gaping sores on her buttocks were eating toward her spine. She'd been living like that for six years. There was no end in sight.
Then The Chronicle profiled Homeless Island. Police broke up the makeshift colony. And out-of-town relatives and friends who read about the Islanders online reached out, offering them a chance at transformation.
Only one took it.
"I have better things to do now," said Grant, 54, standing in the yard of her sister's Florida bungalow, which looks out on acres of pasture and woods. She is healthy on AIDS medication. She is clean of drugs. Her face shines with new pride, clear of the dope-crazed hunger of last year.
"I have an opportunity to move ahead," she said firmly.
Last March, Alice Wells, a friend of Grant's from their school days in Brewster, N.Y., a 2,000-population dot of a town in the Hudson Valley, was cruising the Internet. Out of curiosity she punched in the words "Rita" and "San Francisco." She'd heard years before that her friend might be living there -- and she was stunned at what popped up.
There on the screen was the Homeless Island story, with its descriptions of Grant's hand-to-mouth hunt for drugs and a nightly place to crash, and the death of her Islander boyfriend Tommy Rettigfrom the flesh-eating disease endemic to the city's homeless junkies.
"I had this image of Rita, knowing how wonderful she was in high school, of her being married and living in a nice home somewhere," Wells said. "Instead it was an absolute heartbreak.
"She once had such a great life, such promise. I just sat there and cried. I thought, 'How did she come to this?' "
Anybody looking at the toothless street wraith panhandling traffic lanes on Van Ness Avenue a year ago would have had a hard time equating her with the girl the boys so admired decades ago when Grant hung out with Wells in high school.
Wells and Grant were on the same gymnastics team, and, when Grant represented New York state in the 1965 New York World's Fair national exhibition, Wells figured she was bound for the Olympics.
"Rita had everything," said Wells, in a telephone interview from her home in Ithaca, N.Y. "Blond, beautiful -- she was captain of the cheerleading team, everybody loved her, and boy was she good at gymnastics, especially uneven bars and floor exercises.
"She could do 30 backsprings in a row, and when we went to the Olympic trials in 1966, I thought she was going to be in for sure."
However, that's when Grant's family -- eight children with a single mother who worked three jobs to keep them middle-class -- moved to Eau Gallie, Fla., to trade New York snow for year-round sun.
Grant abandoned gymnastics for the water -- and, the way she sees it, that was a turning point.
"I started surfing and hanging out with the beach crowd," Grant said. She was homecoming queen in 1968 of Eau Gallie High School, and popular, but by graduation, "I got into totally the wrong crowd.
"I started doing drugs because it was the '60s, and everybody was partying. I chose the wrong guys, and never stuck to anything."
In her early 20s, Grant married a scuba-diving treasure hunter who lived in the Florida Keys, and says she cut out the drugs at 27 when she had the first of her five children. Grant became a master diver herself, and her family says she raised the kids on a healthy diet heavy on fish, avocados and bananas -- and for about a decade, things were at least stable.
Then her marriage fell apart, and the lure of drugs and alcohol -- and more dope-addicted boyfriends who liked to party -- won out again. Her oldest kids made it to college -- one of them graduated from Smith College and is an investment banker -- but by her 40s, Grant was hooked on heroin, and the younger children went to live with relatives. She settled into man-to-man drifting.
"I wasn't really a hippie, but you could say I liked that kind of life," Grant said, smiling ruefully. "I just lived free."
She shook her head, as if shaking off a bad memory. "Conventional doesn't seem so bad now."
The so-called free life landed her in San Francisco in 1997 at age 47, and it wasn't long before she met Tommy Rettig, a quiet, rangy fellow with a bushy red beard.
Rettig, a penniless drifter from Iowa, had been begging in traffic at a wide median at 12th Street and South Van Ness Avenue since hitting town a year before, and about a dozen others joined him to form the loose colony known as Homeless Island. He taught Grant and the others how to make persuasive signs ("Anything helps, even-a-smile" was his trademark), and gave them tips on panhandling stopped cars. They slept on the concrete or in fleabag rooms when they had spare cash -- and, as the nights wore on, Rettig and Grant found comfort in each other.
"Tommy was so sweet, and I was in love with him because he was always there for me," Grant said. "But everything was about drugs -- getting them, using them, wanting them."
The next six years were a haze of drug abuse and aging fast. Grant's teeth rotted out, and the ravages of sleeping outdoors etched deep lines into her face and turned her silky hair to straw. Bouncing between the downers of booze and heroin and the upper high of crack wasted her curvaceous body, reducing her to a stick-thin waif.
Then in September 2003, Rettig died -- at 44 -- of an infection he'd neglected for months in an abscess across much of his ankle. He'd gotten it from using dirty needles.
Grant was so dispirited -- by Rettig's death and by a police crackdown that followed the December 2003 publication of the story on the Islanders -- that she took even less care of herself.
The HIV she had caught from a boyfriend in 1996 flared into AIDS, and abscesses on her backside spread and deepened. In one last stab at righting herself, she said, she inquired at a city health clinic last winter about getting methadone, which helps heroin addicts kick their habits. But there were no open spots -- "so I pretty much gave up on a lot of life."
"The worst part of being homeless is that you can't blend into society," Grant said. "You can't add anything to society -- all you do is take. You don't realize it when you're in the middle of it, but you lose your self-esteem.
"I mean, how can you care about yourself when you're convinced nobody else really gives a damn about you?"
But Grant was wrong. Her family and her friend Wells still cared.
Grant's relatives knew she had gone to California and was poor. But they didn't know how bad off she was until last March when Wells read The Chronicle story and called Grant's 47-year-old sister, Pam Johnson, in Florida, to alert her.
In the story, which kicked off a five-part Chronicle series on chronic homelessness in San Francisco, Grant was identified, by her request, only as "Rita." But the photos and description were enough.
"Seeing that story was all I needed to know," Johnson said, standing with her arm around her sister in their backyard, shaded by huge oak trees. "First I cried. And then I went into action."
On March 30, Johnson and Grant's 27-year-old daughter, Joy, flew to San Francisco and headed to Homeless Island. There, they paid one of the Islanders $5 to tell them where Grant was. She was 10 feet away on the sidewalk. But she was so wasted her sister didn't recognize her.
The pair took Grant to a city medical clinic, where doctors said her abscesses, by this point 7 inches long, were so severe and close to her spine that they would soon cripple or kill her. The clinic got the infection under control, and then Grant's daughter and sister helped her get onto methadone.
Two weeks later, Grant was flying to Florida to live with Johnson, an artist, in her bungalow. Grant and her relatives asked that The Chronicle not name the city where she is living.
It took a couple months to shake her drug habits and stabilize her health, but by fall Grant was clean, even off methadone, and again eating healthy food, mostly fish and vegetables.
Looking back now, with her head clear and her body filled out again -- she's gained 12 pounds -- Grant shuddered.
"It was just time for me to go," she said. "I was finally tired of the street -- too much tragedy, too much loneliness, too much sorrow. But I couldn't get cleaned up by myself."
She grinned -- a wholehearted, face-filling grin the likes of which she could never muster 10 months ago -- and gazed at her sister. Their eyes locked for a long moment. Johnson smiled back.
"Thank God, my family didn't give up," Grant said.
"We knew we could never force her," Johnson said. "She had to be willing to take that chance at another life. I always knew she would someday, and we never stopped loving her, but I guess we had to wait until she hit bottom."
Today, Grant's room in Florida reflects a woman looking to the future.
Everything is painted in calming hues, from the white rattan dresser to the blue table next to her double bed. Pictures of her three daughters and two sons -- who look like they stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog -- hang on the walls, and framed photographs of Bob Dylan and John Lennon sit on the dresser and a nightstand. Her pillowcase reads: "Nothing is ever simple."
Grant helps her sister paint furniture, which Johnson sells; one piece is an antique kitchen table and chairs painted in a vivid leopard-skin pattern. At night, she writes in a journal and watches the news and movies on DVD. "When I was on the Island, I couldn't even tell you who the president was, so I have some catching up to do," she said with a laugh.
She gets Medicare and a $550 monthly federal disability check, which lets her chip in for housing costs and save up for new teeth. A full set costs $3,000, and she hopes to have it by summer.
"After that, I'm going to junior college and studying to be a nutritionist," she said.
Grant still talks by phone occasionally to her former Homeless Island comrades, encouraging them to kick drugs and get off the street. But more of her chatting is done at a local church, and at weekly meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
"She's learning to be a friend to herself again," Johnson said.
Grant also talks to her old schoolmate Wells quite a bit by phone, something they haven't done in decades. "She's just like the old Rita again, only wiser," Wells said. "She's becoming who she always had the ability to be -- I still can't believe how lucky we all are that it's come to this."
Joy Grant, the daughter who participated in the rescue mission to San Francisco, said her mother's biggest challenge now is "finding a purpose, because like so many homeless people she got to where she didn't think she was worth anything. But we tell her her purpose is enjoying her life.
"She always had so much love inside for us, even in her worst times, and it hurt me to know she was lonely and sad." Joy paused, and her voice caught.
"Now I don't have to hurt anymore," she said slowly. "I am so proud of her."
Her mother sat in a black rattan chair under a huge oak tree in the backyard as the sun sank low, and thought about what her daughter had said. Her bronze-furred kitten, Smeagol, sat on her lap.
Grant's eyes were calm, her hands steady as she stroked the cat -- nothing like the fidgety street beggar she was a year ago. "That's nice," she said quietly, after a long silence. She looked down at the kitten and smiled.
"Just think: Somebody dumped this kitty on the road six months ago, and we took her in," Grant mused. "She was skinny and wasted out, needed some real love."
She chuckled. "Kind of like me, huh?"