Feeling Their Pain
A month latér, Smith entered a shelter, then found a rehab center where he finally beat his drug habit. "I cleaned up by my birthday, 1991," says Smith, 41. "I have never been tempted since. I even quit smoking." But that was just the beginning. Before long, Smith found himself running one of the largest shelters serving the city's estimated 5,000 homeless. Then last year, just before taking the stage at the opening of a local credit union, Mayor Willie Brown turned to Smith and said, "By the way, you are my new homeless coordinator."
Not even a college graduate, much less a bureaucrat, Smith had been recruited three years earlier from a citywide task force on homelessness and chosen over 26 other applicants to be the assistant to the then Director of Homeless. It was there Smith caught the mayor's eye with his vision and commitment. "He was speaking from having lived the life—he was the real thing," says Brown. Even with a staff of six, Smith has built a reputation for hands-on solutions. "In November, Brother George got 38 people rooms in the heart of the rainy season," says Billy Garrison, 46, one of several former homeless men who volunteer to be what Smith calls "my eyes and ears."
Though critics dismiss his appointment as a gimmick by a flamboyant mayor who some think is short on ideas and policy, Smith routinely visits shelters. He has also established Southeast San Francisco's first multiservice drop-in center, offering food, clothing, shelter and job counseling. In addition he has gotten the city to turn three run-down hotels into affordable housing. And if the homeless find their way to his office, his door is usually open. Recently, a man walked in pleading for bus tokens. "My feet are killing me," he said. "I'm disabled, and I can't walk anymore." Smith quickly retrieved a fistful of tokens and handed them over. "By the time they get to my office they're desperate," he says. "Homelessness isn't necessarily about poverty. It is about people in some type of crisis."
As unlikely as Smith's rise from the streets to the corridors of power might seem, his decline into homelessness was equally unexpected. One of 10 children of local upholsterer George Smith Jr., now 80 and retired, and his wife, Danzetta, 82, Smith moved out after high school and took a series of odd jobs. Unfortunately, the income proved a mixed blessing in that he used it to buy drugs. "My attitude changed, my wardrobe changed, my relationship with my parents deteriorated," he says. As the years passed, he was fired from one job after the other and finally found himself on the streets. "I started being a loner," he says. "I would walk down a street not because I had someplace to go, but for no reason."
Smith credits his ability to kick his habit and to pull himself up out of homelessness in part to the unwavering support of his parents and to his partner of eight years, Don Hamilton. "I'm really proud of him, given what he's overcome," says Hamilton, 32, a licensed aircraft mechanic. "He hung in there with me," says Smith. "We don't have alcohol, drugs or cigarettes in our house—just two cats and Don's model airplanes."
Smith's rise has taken him to unexpected heights. In March he met a fund-raising President Clinton at a clergy-organized private meeting. Nervous at first, Smith quickly found himself lecturing Clinton on the government's failure to help the homeless. "At one point, I had to stop myself," says Smith. "I was thinking, 'Hey, you're hammering the President of the United States!'
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in San Francisco
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